Why is Soap a Superpower Right Now?

Why is Soap a Superpower Right Now?


Why is Soap a Superpower Right Now?


-'At the molecular level, soap breaks things apart. At the level of society, it helps hold everything together.' -Feris Jabr

I love this diagram by Jonathan Corum and Ferris Jabr from a New York Times article, written by Feris Jabr, entitled, 'Why Soap Works.'  

If you want the short story, read this. If you want the long story, scroll down a bit. If you prefer a super-condensed version, read my Instagram @kopakauai, it's drawn in a diagram.


The Short Story 

Soap, Hand-washing, and the Coronavirus - 

The key to what makes soap cleansing lies in the structure of the soap molecule itself. It consists of a head that is attracted to water (hydrophilic, water-loving) and a tail that avoids it but loves dirt and oil (hydrophobic, water-fearing). Surrounding the coronavirus is a membrane of oily molecules with a similar structure to that of soap molecules but spiked with proteins that help infect cells. Soap disables the virus when the water-avoiding, oil-loving tails of the soap molecules wedge themselves into the oily virus membrane, disrupting it and rendering it useless, then trapping the dirt and fragments of the virus and washing them away.


The Long Story

Soap, Hand-washing, and the Coronavirus

The most consistent message we're hearing from health officials is a call to practice thorough and regular handwashing. The simple ancient method of washing hands with soap is one of our most valuable medical practices and has remained unchanged for centuries. We think of soap, especially handmade soap, as gentle and even soothing, but for microorganisms, it's a destructive force that uproots dirt and kills off bacteria, and viruses. The superpower of this force is soap's hybrid structure.  

Soap molecules are a chain of atoms arranged with a hydrophilic (water-loving) head that bonds to water, and a hydrophobic (water-fearing and oil-loving) tail that bonds to dirt and oil. Soap cleans when these opposing parts connect dirt (or oil) to water, which allows it to wash away. 

Interestingly, the coronavirus has a protective outer layer, called the lipid bilayer, made up of similar molecules. These virus molecules also have hydrophilic (moisture-loving) round heads that are sticky and face outward (great for sticking to hands and perfect for infecting) and hydrophobic tails that pull in close to each other to protect itself from the water in droplets coming from coughs or sneezes. In this diagram, you'll see the virus membrane studded with proteins sticking up, making up what looks like a crown (corona), these proteins help the viruses infect cells and feed bacteria. This type of layer is on coronaviruses, HIV, viruses that cause hepatitis B and C, herpes, Ebola, Zika, dengue, and others. While washing your hands with soap and water, you surround microorganisms on your skin with the soap molecules and their hydrophobic tails that wedge themselves into the lipid membrane of these viruses and essentially pry them apart. Visualize a crowbar (the tails) digging into this virus layer and uprooting the structure, wreaking havoc, and disabling it. Because soap molecules are so similar to the Coronavirus molecules, they are as attracted to them as they are to each other, and in turn, the soap kills the virus by disrupting its outer layer and the whole mess washes away with the running water.

The reminders about washing our hands in an effort to ward off this virus are constant, it's about stopping the spread, and we all have a responsibility to listen up and stay clean. #wereallinthistogether #lifeisbetterwithcleanhands


The Soapmaker's Companion

New York Times, Why Soap Works-Feris Jabr