Why does soap work so well on the new coronavirus and, indeed, most viruses? Because it is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer.

That sounds scientific. Let us explain.

Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and “dies,” or rather, it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive. Viruses can be active outside the body for hours, even days.

Disinfectants, or liquids, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have a similar effect but are not as good as regular soap. Apart from alcohol and soap, antibacterial agents in those products don’t affect the virus structure much. Consequently, many antibacterial products are basically just an expensive version of soap in how they act on viruses. Soap is the best, but alcohol wipes are good when soap is not practical or handy, for example in office reception areas.

Soap outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface, and the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards.

Source: Palli Thordarson is a professor at the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

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