Wash Your Hands! Gibson Explains How Soap Destroys Coronavirus

by | Aug 1, 2020 | Improving Human Health and Community Vibrancy, Multimedia, Short Talks from the Hill

Robbie Edwards: This is Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast at the University of Arkansas. My name is Robbie Edwards I’m director of communications for U of A’s Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. Today I’m talking to Kristen Gibson, associate professor of food safety and microbiology in our Department of Food Science and for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The current research focus of Gibson’s laboratory is on the fate and transport of pathogens within food systems with a focus on human noroviruses and fresh produce, as well as retail food safety. We’re going to be talking about precautions and safety tips and suggestions in relation to the coronavirus. Welcome, Kristen, thanks for joining us. Let’s jump right in. We mentioned that you are a scientist and faculty member in our Department of Food Science. First of all, what does food science have to do with the coronavirus?

Kristen Gibson: Thank you for having me. And that’s a really great question. I think a lot of people wonder like, what do I do about a respiratory virus? But there are some key factors that play a role in… and kind of why I’ve been involved in some of the questions related to coronavirus. So, as part of food science, as you said, food safety is an aspect of that and it falls under that broad umbrella of public health and environmental health. And as you said, my research focuses on infectious disease transmission in the environment, and how that impacts food contamination. So when this pandemic started, there were a lot of questions about the spread of SARS-Cov2, which is the agent that causes COVID-19. And I think most virologists would agree that a respiratory virus is not going to necessarily be transmitted by food, but people needed answers, and so I started to be contacted, as to, you know, should we be concerned with coronavirus is food? And also questions about hand washing and environmental surface contamination, which are all aspects of viruses that I study. And so I was able to kind of be a resource in that respect.

RE: Okay, you mentioned direct contact. And earlier you mentioned washing hands. I think a lot of us have discovered in the last couple of months that there’s actually a recommended method of washing our hands. Can you describe that for us?

KG: Yes, I will say that I’ve been shocked that most people don’t automatically know how to wash your hands. But I know having little kids, they’re taught very well in child care environments how to wash their hands early. So maybe that will stick with them. But yes, there is a correct way. And there are probably multiple versions of the correct way, but overall there’s probably, I would say, you know, six to eight steps that you should perform within a 20-second period or longer. And it should be noted that 20 seconds also includes washing and rinsing. It’s not just rubbing for 20 seconds and then rinsing. So, usually we all rub our hands together palm to palm. But then the next steps are some that people may or may not do. So, between your fingers, you also should rub the backs of your hands. Also rub actually on your thumb area, the base of your thumb area, back of fingers, fingernails, wrists. And after you do all of that, you rinse and you dry. And rinsing and drying are actually a very important part in hand washing as well.

RE: Okay, and what is the significance of 20 seconds? Why does that matter?

KG: So that’s a really great question as well. I think that anything longer just isn’t realistic. And that doesn’t sound very scientific. So there have been some studies that have been done and so some may look at shorter hand washing time. So I would say some of the work we’ve done the average hand-washing time, without giving anyone direction, just say, hey, wash your hands, it could be maybe anywhere from like seven to 11 seconds, a total of, of rubbing the soap, rinsing the soap and drying. So it’s pretty fast. And so we’re asking people to wash for 20 seconds. So research has shown that say we ask people to wash their hands for 60 seconds. Well, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than 20 seconds because there’s, there’s kind of like diminishing returns, right? Like, people have shown that if you if you continue washing your hands, sometimes it can actually make it worse. You can actually prevent the microbes from leaving or removing your hands from your hands all together. So basically, kind of an example is, I think it’s not necessarily the time but the quality of your hand washing. So if you just put soap on your hands, rubbed for a few seconds and spend the remaining time just passively having your hands underwater, that’s not going to be the same as actively rubbing your hands for 20 seconds. So I think 20 seconds is a good goal, but it’s also the quality. So following their steps, vigorously rubbing as much as you can, is going to be the best thing because we’re trying to really physically remove the pathogen and the virus. You know, that’s a really crucial part of the hand washing, is that rubbing. You’re not just putting soap on and then letting water rinse off, that’s not going to do anything. And so it’s not just the time, I think it’s also the quality of the washing during that time.

RE: All right, what is it about soap that fights this virus? And is this true of all viruses, as far as soap being a good way of fighting it?

KG: That’s a really great question. So respiratory viruses… So I study in enteric viruses. And so these are the viruses that cause gastroenteritis, diarrhea, vomiting-type symptoms. And so they’re structured differently than respiratory viruses. And so respiratory viruses have what they call an envelope. And this is basically made of… it’s like a fatty layer around the virus itself. And so if you remember a little bit about chemistry from back in the day, maybe, soap is designed to break down fat. And so for a respiratory viruses, soap will destroy that outer envelope that’s protecting the virus somewhat. And then it makes it more susceptible to kind of destroying the virus and making it not able to infect anymore or not be infectious anymore. With respect to other viruses, like enteric viruses, they’re more resistant to this soap, because they don’t have that lipid layer there, their structure is a little different. And so in that instance, it’s actually the physical removing of the virus when you’re washing your hands. So the friction and the removing from your hands, not so much the soap breaking down the virus itself. So very effective against envelope viruses of respect to the soap actually causing damage to the virus.

RE: Okay, so we’ve covered washing our hands. And I think most of us when we’re out in public, we’re aware of touching doorknobs and handrails and other publicly shared items, but you’ve also mentioned a very personal item that all of us have that we need to be concerned about, and that’s our smartphones. Why should we be concerned about phones or any touchscreen for that matter?

KG: Yeah, so um, so I know people… or maybe people have seen in the popular press a lot of times that phones have been contaminated with organisms that are associated with fecal material, whatever, and studies on people taking their phones into the bathroom. And so the basic point there is that our phones have now become kind of another appendage for most of us, right? Like we are constantly carrying, we are constantly holding and touching our phones. And while that’s not a big deal, because you’re the only person touching it, if you are out in public areas for a long time and you’re touching other things or other surfaces and then touching your phone, you could be transferring microorganisms, including coronavirus, if it were on the surface, to your phone. And then we often touch our face not knowingly all the time. And so that’s where… I don’t think it’s something you should stress out about or be super anxious about, but I think it’s a surface that is forgotten, with respect to… it could be contaminated and we should clean it, just like we clean any other surface. Other touchscreen devices such as multi… what we call multi-user touchscreens… so these would be… back in the day, when we would go into a restaurant or into a maybe fast casual type restaurant, you may use a touchscreen to place your order or use the touchscreen to sign in for your credit card. Those are where… lots of people are using those all the time, and so if the food service establishments aren’t cleaning those frequently, then there could be concerned there.

RE: Going back to our smartphones for a minute, is there a suggested or recommended way for us to clean our phones, and are there any particular cleaning products that we should look for with our phones that would get them clean and keep them safe at the same time?

KG: Probably going with the manufacturer recommendations. You want to use something that has been approved for using on touchscreen electronic devices. The last thing you want is to ruin the device itself. Alcohol wipes can be very effective, and they’re approved for use on phones. I know a lot of the big companies that make phones, like Apple, they recommend microfiber cloths, and they are effective too. The only thing, and the difference between an alcohol wipe and a cloth is that the virus will be inactivated by the alcohol, whereas on a microfiber cloth, it’s just going to be removed. Right? So it could still be on that cloth. And so if you want to actually sanitize your phone using something that has a chemical compound or agent that will do that is the better choice as opposed to just wiping it.

RE: Okay, Kristen, thanks a lot. That’s a lot of helpful information. Thank you for your time and insight and for joining us today. And thanks everyone for listening to Short Talks From the Hill.

Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information and additional podcasts, visit researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

Robert Whitby
science and research writer
479-387-0720, whitby@uark.edu

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