When it comes to reducing plastic, I’ve still got a lot of work to do. But I’m working on it. The coronavirus pandemic, however, given me pause for thought about one of my improvements: my bar soap.
I used to be all about bottled soaps. The pumps with foam? Ugh, I loved those. But I recently gave them up and converted to package-free soap to lower my household’s plastic consumption. That even includes the hand soap in my bathroom. With the coronavirus, however, I’ve been wondering if my boyfriend and I are better off sticking liquid hand soap by our sink.
You see, my boyfriend is still going out into the world every day because he has to for work. When he comes home (or when I do from my occasional trips outside), we wash our hands. And at least mentally, that bar soap doesn’t feel like it’s killing off the coronavirus. That’s because we have to grab it and touch it while our hands are dirty instead of, say, using an elbow to pump liquid soap into our hands. Soap sitting inside a container just feels so much safer in these trying times, sealed away from whatever germs may be hiding in between our fingers.
Well, as it turns out, I’ve been paranoid for nothing.
“I do not believe that there should be a concern regarding using bar vs. liquid soap for hand-washing,” Marlene Wolfe, a postdoctoral researcher of civil and environmental engineering and soap expert at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, told Earther in an email. “They should both be very effective for hand-washing when the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes covid-19 is a concern.”
Wolfe would know: She has studied handwashing efficacy using a virus that’s similar in size to the novel coronavirus that’s killed more than 100,000 people globally. She also told Earther that a lot of studies have looked at handwashing’s impact on bacteria compared to viruses, suggesting we need more research on the topic, especially now.
Still, she believes that soap—regardless of the type—is effective at fighting the virus. What soap does is break down the fat membrane of the virus. This doesn’t kill the virus, but it shields us from its threat. Even knowing this, I feared that somehow grabbing my bar soap with my dirty hands would contaminate it. Wolfe shut that down quick.
“While bar soap is icky to a lot of people because it can become wet and cracked and look dirty, if you are touching it and then using it to wash your hands, whatever negligible amount might transfer to your hands should also be washed off during washing,” she said. “And there’s some work to suggest that bacteria are unlikely to transfer off of bar soap, and I would suspect this would hold for viruses.”
And for those who want to reduce their carbon footprint but just cannot deal with handling bar soaps, Wolfe recommends reusable containers for stashing liquid soap as an alternative. These can be refilled at a bulk supplier, which is her personal preference. Of course, what’s most important in this time is our health and safety. If your best option is a plastic bottle of soap, don’t worry. While I waited on my Lush bar soap to arrive in the mail last month, I bought some bottled soap that I now keep in my kitchen next to my dish soap.
Since I’m a Lush aficionado, I decided to ask the company about its bar soaps. Erica Vega, brand and product trainer at Lush, told Earther in an email that bar soap, liquid gel, or even shower gel is effective so long as users wash their hands carefully for at least 20 seconds. What I love even more about Lush is that its bar soaps carry ingredients such as honey, herbs, coconut oil, argan oil, and soy milk to help keep hands soft. Everybody keeps complaining about dry hands with all this handwashing. Not in this house!
“Bar soap is a great way to stay clean with minimal environmental impact,” said Vega. “Right now, we know it’s so important to be hygienic, but people can still be mindful of their impact when it comes to their everyday beauty regimes at home.”
So find what works for you to keep your hands clean. For me, that means indulging in cruelty-free bar soap that goes toward supporting immigrant rights groups and leaves my hands smelling spicy. That might not be the case for you. And if you want to purchase bottled soaps (or any other plastic goods for that matter), don’t beat yourself up. Just whatever you do, wash those hands!