Covid-19: the importance of hand hygiene

Washing with a MediWash portable sink

Soap and water washing ensures that the virus “is swept away and destroyed”

The importance of hand hygiene and why washing with soap and water is the preferred method, with increasing environmental concerns being expressed regarding anti-viral hand washes.

As we continue to find ways to manage the continuing Covid-19 pandemic it is important that we continue to focus on keeping the habits of effective hand washing. A main message in the early days and still the most important method of controlling the infection as the behaviour changes of mask use, social distancing and self-isolation have been widely adopted.

The message has and always will be that regular hand washing with soap and water is the most effective method of preventing it the spread of virus, as covered in a recent article by Stephen Dowling on the BBC Future website.

Thomas Gilbert, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says coronavirus’s chemical make-up can be disrupted by nothing more specialised than cheap soap and warm water.

“These viruses have membranes that surround the genetic particles that are called lipid membranes, because they have an oily, greasy structure,” he says. “It’s this kind of structure than be neutralised by soap and water.”

“Dissolving this outer “envelope” breaks the virus cell up, and the genetic material – the RNA which hijacks human cells to make copies of the virus – is swept away and destroyed”.

Making sure that it is effective means taking time washing all areas of hands writes Dowling. The NHS has been strongly promoting the hand washing procedure that is effective the 20 second cycle, with the memorable reminder of singing or humming “Happy Birthday to You” twice. It allows the soap to have time to act and ensure all the areas of the hands are cleaned.

The need for soap and water – the preferred method of washing

Martin Michaelis, Professor of molecular science at the University of Kent in the UK, is quoted as saying that water on its own is not enough to disable the virus.

“When you have olive oil on your fingers when you’re cooking, it’s very hard to get rid of it with just water,” he says. “You need soap.”  When it comes to the coronavirus, soap is needed in the same way “to remove that lipid envelope so that all the virus is deactivated”.

Hand sanitisers are now being used widely and most experts agree that certain types can be effective if they are alcohol-based – but hand washing is the preferred method of good hand hygiene.

“Some people have turned to anti-viral handwashes, believing them to be more effective than normal soap – and that’s not the case” says Michaelis.

“You don’t need these kind of things at all” he says. “Most of the anti-microbials on the market are in fact anti-bacterials.

“Overuse of these could just be storing up problems for the future too” he warns. “If you have too many anti-bacterials [which don’t work on viruses] in the wastewater then you have more chance of bacterial resistance,” he says.

“All of the other disinfectants you can use [besides soap]… can cause more environmental concerns and cause more problems with resistant bacteria down the line”.  

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Portable sinks for handwashing in South Africa by Tealwash

Make effective handwashing available – wherever it’s needed!

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How to choose the correct mobile sink »