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Washing Your Hands is Cooler Than You Think!

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This post was written by Kunal Kedar, second year medical student at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

As children have to stay at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that annoying task of washing their hands before dinner becomes washing their hands every time they touch something outside of the house, people might wonder why handwashing can be so important in protecting against the virus.  Skipping all the public health jargon (jargon meaning fancy words that only specific people understand, which in my opinion includes the word jargon), washing your hands is important because it destroys the virus relatively easily. When I say handwashing, I mean with soap and water. The soap, which I know can dry up the hands when used frequently, is critical for destroying the virus. As an activity to do with children or anyone hesitant to use soap to wash their hands as well, here is a simple activity that can show the power of handwashing.

  1. Take some cooking oil and put a drop in your hands and rub it together. Your hands should develop a greasy feeling.
  2. Wash your hands with just water and feel your hands. There should still be a greasy feeling.
  3. Now, wash your hands with soap for 5 seconds. There still will be some leftover greasiness to your hands.
  4. Now, finally, wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds, scrubbing them wherever the greasy feeling is and this time, the greasy feeling should be gone!

You might be asking, “okay, you made me put some cooking oil in my hand and showed me how hard it can be to get off, cool, what does this have to do with the virus?” Without getting too complicated, the answer is that the virus has a greasy coat to it. This coating lets it not be washed off with just plain water.  Like the oil, it takes more than just a couple seconds with soap to wash it off. Again, without getting too complicated, it not only washes the virus off your hands when you scrub with soap for 20 seconds but also it destroys the integrity of the virus! In a time where a virus feels like it is dominating our lives, washing our hands to destroy it can be empowering! Once the virus enters the body, it enters human cells where it is shielded from the power of soap so while soap is powerful against the virus, it has its limits.

Here is another activity that can visually show this!

  1. Fill a shallow bowl with water.
  2. Add a drop of a vegetable oil that is not clear, like olive oil or canola oil, and watch how the drops of the oil clings together to form islands of oil in the water. Imagine that these large islands of oil represent the virus.  Stir the water and watch how these clumps come back together and resist separating.
  3. For extra fun, compare this to if you used food coloring and dropped it into water and stirred! The food coloring would spread out across all the water and change its color
  4. Add a drop of dishwashing soap (acts the same way as hand soap) to the water. It might take some time but the oil might dissipate to the rim of the bowl and reform into droplets again or might form smaller droplets. Those islands that were the virus were destroyed! But if the smaller islands of oil bother you, stir the water and watch as the oil is further broken up into smaller and smaller islands! This is the power of soap! Once the virus is broken up, it is no longer effective at infecting the human body!

Hopefully these handwashing activities might turn a chore into a fun activity, and more importantly, into a powerful tool against a threat to our health!

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