We realize you’ve probably been inundated with information about COVID-19 in the last few weeks. There is certainly a lot of misinformation out there, so as scientists, we thought we’d share what we know to help provide insight and calm in the midst of all the chaos and anxiety (if you’re cool as a cucumber, that’s awesome and we admire you for it!).
At Ellis Day Skin Science, we use microbiology every day as we develop products that support your skin microbiome. We are constantly working with viruses, bacteria, and other microbes, so we know a thing or two about the science behind these organisms and want to share what we know about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 with you. Our mission as a company is to help improve your well-being through science-based skincare, which also includes knowledge and resources. And ultimately, it’s really important to improve and maintain your well-being during stressful times like these. Ok, so here goes.
What is the new coronavirus, really? We’re here to share the science.
The cause of COVID-19 is a virus called SARS-CoV-2, which is an abbreviation for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. Learning about the virus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, can help you make sense of the information swirling around.
How do you kill something that’s not alive?
We’ve seen some wild headlines lately, like “The coronavirus isn’t alive. That’s why it’s so hard to kill.” Headlines like these make it sound like SARS-CoV-2 is invincible. So, how can the CDC’s advice to just wash your hands for 20 seconds possibly kill something that’s not alive?! Let’s take a step back and figure out what a virus is, and then we can understand how hand washing and hand sanitizer actually can kill a virus, even if a virus isn’t alive.
WARNING: We’re going to get a little nerdy here with the science, so if you’re not into that, skip to the next two sections for practical tips. Otherwise, read on!
Viruses are the simplest biological organisms. They are completely different from bacteria and other organisms, and are usually about a tenth of the size of bacteria or less. You can see most bacteria under the 1,000x magnification of a compound light microscope that you might find in a high-school or university lab, but you have to use an expensive, powerful electron microscope to see most viruses at 100,000x magnification. The main difference between viruses and bacteria isn’t their size, though. The main difference is that viruses cannot replicate by themselves; they need to infect a host cell that can provide the molecular machinery for them to replicate or grow. Viruses are completely harmless and inactive until they find their host cell(s), at which point they infect their host and begin to proliferate. Bacteria, on the other hand, have in their cells all of the molecular machinery they need to replicate themselves. So bacteria don’t need a host; they can live and grow completely independently. This difference between viruses and bacteria is why the Washington Post and others say that viruses aren’t “alive,” meaning viruses must infect something else living to be able to replicate and grow.
Every virus is basically formed like an M&M with two parts: a hard candy coating with a soft, chocolate center. For viruses, the hard candy coating is called a capsid, and it is a shell that coats and protects the virus’s soft chocolate center, which is the genome. A virus cannot infect a cell without both the capsid and the genome together, so destroying at least one of the parts is important. Now, what is actually advantageous for us is that SARS-CoV-2 is a particular type of virus whose capsid, or protective shell, is more fragile and delicate. This shell can dry out, break, be overheated, or be pulled apart by chemicals. The shell can also be destroyed by using alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other kinds of viruses have a more stable capsid, or shell, that is more resistant to destruction; these types of viruses are not destroyed by using hand sanitizer, but can be destroyed by hand washing. Fortunately, SARS-CoV-2 has the more fragile type capsid, or shell, and so is not that hard to kill. The key is to kill it before it infects you!
So, basically you’re saying I just need to wash my hands?
While using hand sanitizer will likely kill SARS-CoV-2, washing your hands is the safer and more thorough choice. Just water alone, rushing over your hands, would remove whole viruses. If you were to use hot or warm water, then the heat would weaken the outer layer of the virus’ protective shell and the viruses would start falling apart. If you also used soap, then the surfactants in the soap would violently rip apart the outer layer and the protein shell, so that the genome would be unprotected. Most of the viruses would wash off your hands, and any remaining viruses would be completely deactivated. Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best things you can do to deactivate viruses on your hands (which, by the way are some of the dirtiest places on your skin 😬).
Some Extra Tips!
Now that we understand the nature of the SARS-CoV-2, here are some additional tips that might be helpful:
- HANDWASHING: When you wash your hands for those 20 seconds, make sure to rub the palms of your hands, interlacing your fingers, the outside of your hands, fingertips, and in and around your nails to make sure you wash with maximum coverage.
- HAND SANITIZER: Only use hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to washing your hands; it’s hard to be as thorough when using sanitizer and it may not kill all kinds of viruses. If you do use hand sanitizer, make sure you use enough of it to get full coverage over your entire hands and all fingers.
- GROCERIES: Wash your produce with soap (one that is meant for washing produce) and water. If you don’t have a veggie wash, rinse produce in running water and use a vegetable brush to scrub; disinfect all other plastic, paper, or metal packaging with alcohol-based wipes.
- TAKE-OUT: Disinfect your takeout packaging and/or place the food in your own sanitized tupperware before you eat it. It goes without saying that you should wash your hands before you eat, always.
- HEAT vs COLD: It’s very difficult for viruses to survive in heat, so hot foods are safer than cold foods. Viruses can live in the freezer for years, so make sure you also disinfect product packaging even if you are going to put it in the freezer
- OBJECTS: Clean objects you touch on a daily basis with disinfectant wipes, e.g. your computer, phone, remote control, light switches, cabinet handles, doorknobs, and faucet fixtures, unless they are made of copper!
We know the world feels a little crazy right now, and you might be experiencing some anxiety -- rightfully so. Certainly, we all need to do our part for society by abiding by the “Stay at Home” mandate and maintaining social distance if we do go out for walks and grocery runs. But, we hope that by sharing the science behind SARS-Cov-2, along with some helpful tips, you can find a little bit of calm knowing that the virus isn’t invincible.
If you have any questions for us about the science of viruses or other microbes, please reach out at hello@ellisdayskinscience. We are here for you!
About Ellis Day Skin Science
We believe that modern skincare must be revolutionized to elevate skin health. And we believe the answer is in the wild, natural world, which includes the surface of your skin.
At Ellis Day Skin Science, we pioneer natural phage-based products that target and kill bad bacteria associated with inflammation, damage, and aging, and enable good bacteria to flourish. By doing so, we aim to reset your microbiome for optimal skin health.
We use cutting-edge science to leverage nature, creating products that are just as kind and conscientious as they are effective, so that all can feel empowered with balanced, clear, radiant, and resilient skin.
- Firquet, Swan, et al. "Survival of enveloped and non-enveloped viruses on inanimate surfaces." Microbes and environments (2015): ME14145.
- Vogel, Lauren. "Hand sanitizers may increase norovirus risk." (2011): E799-E800.
- Grayson, M. Lindsay, et al. "Efficacy of soap and water and alcohol-based hand-rub preparations against live H1N1 influenza virus on the hands of human volunteers." Clinical Infectious Diseases 48.3 (2009): 285-291.