The importance of hand hygiene in protecting against COVID-19

The importance of hand hygiene in protecting against COVID-19

By now; we should all be aware of the basic protective measures good personal hygiene & social distancing for protecting against COVID-19, as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Most of the world is already on lockdown or practicing some form of social distancing by working from home & restricting all non-critical travel because of COVID-19. Decreasing contact with others will limit the spread of the disease.

How does good hand hygiene help protect against the virus though?

The guidelines for washing your hands are to wash thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with warm water & soap, scrubbing all hand surfaces, wrists & under your nails. If soap & warm water are not available, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Good hand hygiene can protect you against a number of bacteria & viruses not just COVID-19.

If there is currently no cure for this novel coronavirus however, you may wonder how simply washing your hands with soap & water can kill the virus & help protect you. The answer to that question lies in the structure of the virus & your washing technique.

How soap & warm water act?

The outer surface of coronaviruses is made up of a lipid (fat) bilayer & that is the weakness soap targets to break up the virus. Soap is amphiphilic, it has both hydrophilic (water-loving) & lipophilic (fat-loving) properties. When you lather up your hands with soap, in an attempt to escape the water the lipophilic part of the soap binds to the lipid surface of the virus & breaks it apart, physically inactivating it & preventing it from binding to & entering human cells. The hydrophilic part of the soap dissolves in the water & is washed away when rinsing taking away the killed viruses.

The warm water & your scrubbing technique will build up a better lather; the more soap bubbles created the more chemical bonds are disrupted so the viruses & bacteria can’t bind to your skin anymore. So, the soap not only breaks down the bonds that attach the virus to your skin and other surfaces, it also breaks down the interactions keeping the virus all held together.

How alcohol-based hand sanitisers act?

For hand sanitisers to be effective in combating the coronavirus outbreak they must be alcohol-based (at least 60%). It is the alcohol that breaks up the virus membrane, but it has to come in direct contact with the virus.

So, you need to make sure you use enough and that you apply it to all your hand surfaces not just a dollop in your palm.

While alcohol kills the virus, it doesn’t wash it away so it is still important to wash your hands with warm water & soap as soon as you can.

Hand washing to slow a pandemic

New research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed just how important good hand hygiene could be in slowing down the spread of an epidemic.

The research found that 30% of people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom & of the 70% that do, only half of them do so correctly. In airports specifically, only 20% of the people are estimated to have cleaned their hands at any given time. Looking at data about global flights, the research calculated that if 60% rather than 20% of air travellers had clean hands, it could slow down the spread of infections by almost 70%. Even a 10% increase in people with clean hands could slow down the spread by up to 24%.

The conclusion of the research was that engaging the population in proper hand hygiene could be a simple & effective way of preventing infection transmission & reduce the risk of global pandemics.

We might not have a cure for this deadly disease yet, but these are some small ways we can all do our part in fighting & containing it.

  • Wash your hands often
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Carry out respiratory hygiene
  • If you are showing symptoms, self-isolate

Be safe everyone!