This may seem like such an obvious thing that it is hardly worthy of a posting unto itself. In our present world of liquid pump soaps and alcohol gels, you may rarely give it any thought. I would argue that soap is something we should all give a bit more thought to.
By general definition, we’d probably all agree that “soap” is a substance that cleans off dirt when used in the presence of water. In its most common forms, it will produce bubbles, feel slippery, and remove oils, odors, and smudges from our skin. It leaves us feeling “clean” and often smells nice to boot. Pretty good stuff.
Specifically, how people would classify soap would depend on what it’s made of. Most commercially available “soap” is more accurately “detergent,” but that is a discussion for another time. For now, we’ll collectively consider anything commonly used for washing hands, whether liquid or bar, commercially produced or home-made, to be “soap.”
Thinking about how we use soap
Every flu season we hear the reminders about good handwashing practices to stop the spread of communicable diseases. I doubt many of us listen anymore. “Sure, wash my hands after using the bathroom, before I eat, yeah, yeah.” So we do a quick wetting of the hands, soap in the palms, and rinse. (Or, in the case of my preschoolers- left to their own devices, they just run a hand or two across the bar of soap, pass their hands under water, and then smudge up the towel). Done.
Technique and thoroughness do matter though.
To begin with, we do most of our eating with our fingers not our palms. As a matter of fact, we rely on our fingers’ dexterity for a lot of important things (counting out money, opening doors, dialing, writing, and typing to name a few), so it is safe to assume that they need more soapy attention than our palms most of the time.
The next issue is the matter of thoroughness. The time and energy spent on washing do pay dividends. The lather of soap breaks up the oily dirt and other unwanted stuff and allows it to be rinsed away. Unless you have rubbed completely soapy hands and fingers front and back long enough to create a nice spillover of bubbles (experts recommend 20 seconds), you probably did not thoroughly dissolve the grime.
“What’s the big deal? I’ve got some hand sanitizer…” Don’t be too quick to rely on it. It does not work in the same way soap does. Its alcohol base kills the germs it comes in contact with. But remember, you don’t rinse them away. If you’ve used the bathroom or changed a diaper, you want to wash possible fecal matter off.
Don’t get me wrong- alcohol gels have their places. I keep it in the van for use after pumping gas, counting out money, cleaning shopping cart handles, and the like. If I have no access to soap and running water, it’s not a bad second provided I thoroughly rub my whole hands (as I would if washing with soap) until the gel dries.
It’s tempting to think that once you have used hand sanitizer that it will continue to protect your hands. However, it has no residual effects- germs encountered after use are not killed since it evaporates rapidly. Also, it is not effective against some germs (like Hepatitis A and E. Coli) or fungal and bacterial spores.
And speaking of germs- things can get a whole lot more serious than just the common cold or dreaded flu. RSV, Coxsackie virus, Salmnonella, Giardia, Shigella, Cholera, Hepatitis A, pneumonia, Mononucleosis, and the ever-popular Rotavirus and Campylobacteriosis (“stomach bugs”) all have hygiene components.
The skin’s role in good health
Taking that thought to the next level, we need to consider one of our body’s main methods of keeping us healthy- our skin. It is our largest (by surface area) defense. In tact skin may be covered in millions of bacteria (some beneficial) that will not cause us any harm because they don’t gain entry to our bodies.
The problems come when they get beyond the surface. This can happen when we transfer germs to our noses or mouths (or sometimes eyes) or into our digestive systems by way of unclean hands. Secondarily, it can happen when they breach the outer layer by way of cut or other injury.
The first scenario is largely preventable with frequent handwashing and awareness about not touching our faces. The second requires washing and flushing with water as soon as possible. In either case, we want plenty of soap around.
How much is enough soap?
This kind of brings me to my last point. How much soap do you keep on-hand? Do you know how much you use in a month? What about dish soap and detergents for clothes washing? These can be very important too.
If you have not given this much thought yet, I would encourage you to do so. Generally, I have been picking up a jumbo pack of soap from a big box store every month. That is more than we use in a month, so I am gradually accumulating a nice surplus. In addition, every other month or so, I get another giant bottle of dish soap. We are making the switch to soap nuts for laundry, so we are well-stocked there at the moment.
Beyond that, I would encourage you to consider learning to make your own soap. This is something I have finally gotten around to doing and will be sharing my reasoning for it and experiences in the future.