This is the second in a series of science posts developed to help our students make sense of the science terminology they may be hearing this year due to COVID-19. If you'd like to contribute or share feedback, please submit a contact form. Thank you!
Why does using soap and water help kill viruses?
As we talked about before, a virus has a shell that protects the instructions as the virus cruises through the universe. Without the shell, the instructions would be destroyed by the atmosphere. So, if we can break the shell, the instructions will be wrecked, and the virus will no longer be dangerous. But how do we break the shell?
Well, many of the shells of viruses are greasy or oily. The COVID virus has a greasy shell. This means, that if you can find something this greasy or oily like the shell, it will dissolve the shell and the instructions will be destroyed as well. What is greasy or oily? Soap. Take some bar or liquid soap and rub it between your fingers. Pretty slippery, right? When the greasy soap meets the greasy virus shell, it dissolves the shell and there you go. No more virus.
Heat is also a way to dissolve greasy shells, that’s why you need to use hot water when you wash your hands. For those viruses that don’t have a greasy shell, antibacterial disinfectants and wipes work great. These also work well on greasy shell viruses.
Here’s a simple experiment to see how greasy liquids can dissolve things. Take four or five small clear jars of cooking oil and put different things into the oil and see what happens. Try it with a Jolly Rancher candy, a small scoop of ice cream, a glob of mayonnaise, a slice of carrot or whatever else you have around the house. Set the jars on a shelf and observe what happens. If something dissolves, find out what it is made of and it will probably be mostly some kind oil.
Wash those hands!