No soap for handwashing? Try these alternatives

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In these times of social isolation due to the pandemic, it's quite common to run out of essential commodities. And it's not so easy to procure them during lockdowns and restricted access to shopping.

The most precious commodities these days seem to be soaps, hand washes and hand sanitizers. What if you run out of them and are unable to buy them currently?

I'm particularly talking about a liquid hand wash, anti-bacterial or otherwise. Can you substitute it with something else to ensure the same level of protection?

woman worried about running out of soap and handwash & wondering what to wash the hands with.

Can washing hands with plain water help if you have no soap or liquid hand wash in sight?

According to this article, in the absence of anti bacterial soap or liquid hand cleansers, one can use plain running water. Bearably hot water is more preferable.

However you have to wash your hands thoroughly, scrubbing and applying friction vigorously to wash away all the dirt, debris and germs from every nook and corner or your hand including underneath the nails. Or in other words, spend considerable time, say more than 40-50 seconds to wash your hands.

The use of water to wash both hands can indeed eliminate a lot of germs and bacteria that soap can. Soap can actually spread bacteria to the hands if it is not stored correctly to prevent the growth of bacteria.

In villages and remote areas and for lower income groups for whom soap is not available, ash derived from burning wood is often used to scrub the hands clean while washing with water.

WHO recommended wood ash or sand as alternative to soap when soap is not available.  Another alternative is to make a solution of wood ash and sodium bicarbonate.

However health professionals point out that soap does cut down on more bacteria and virus than water alone.

Rinsing hands with water is preferable to not handwashing at all, but handwashing with soap is more effective in removing dirt and germs from hands.

Also read this to know what to do if the water is scarce.


How does washing with soap kill the virus on your hands?

According to this article in NationalGeographic, the simple combination of soap and water remains one of the strongest weapons against infectious diseases, including the various kinds of viruses including novel coronavirus.

All viruses are bits of genetic code bundled inside a collection of lipids and proteins, which can include a fat-based casing known as a viral envelope.

Enveloped viruses typically survive outside of a body for only a matter of days and are considered among the easiest to kill, because once their fragile exterior is broken down, they begin to degrade.

This article from the Guardian explains: Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies – or rather, we should say it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive.

Though disinfectants or liquids, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have similar effects, they are not really quite as good as normal soap, says this article.

Do read this ultimate guide to correct handwashing.

Is liquid soap / antibacterial hand wash better than soap bar for handwashing?

One may feel that washing hands with a soap bar is more gross than say washing it with a liquid hand wash.

It's also true that several studies over a period of time have shown that bar soaps used at home and in public places do harbor bacteria and other germs; the more heavily used a bar is, the more microorganisms it holds.
But should that be a reason enough to avoid bar soaps?

Studies such as this and this show that it's very unlikely that the microbes found on bar soap will make you sick and there is very little evidence that bacteria from bar soap is transferred to the next person.

Another study published in the journal PLoS One suggests that good old bar soap is pretty effective at removing viruses from people’s hands too.

Studies have found that one minute of rigorous handwashing with bar soap was as good as a dollop of hand sanitizer and or a chlorine rinse that some doctors use—for removing both bacteria and viruses.

Soap bar is good at mechanically removing germs that are transiently on your hands, say the researchers.

Basically, all you need to do is make sure you wash your hands well. Spend 20 to 30 seconds scrubbing each side, make sure to scrape under your nails, and wash up to your wrists. You don’t need any additional antibacterial substances, like triclosan, in your soap, they add. [Source]

If soap bars have been lying in a puddle of moisture or sludge, then they are less safe to use. The puddle can allow germs to thrive which is not the case with liquid soap dispensed out of a bottle.

As long as you make sure it hasn’t been sitting in sludge, using regular bar soap works perfectly well. And if it has been sitting in sludge, just rinse it off with running water before you use it, says Marlene Wolfe – an environmental health researcher at Tufts University.

The sludge puddle is also why wet towels or kitchen sponges are havens for microorganisms. Do read: Replace your kitchen sponge instead of sanitizing.

She further mentions that while both bar and liquid soap eliminate bacteria effectively, one is better than the other in certain circumstances. If sharing a soap bar with say a partner or family member who is sick, it’s recommended switching to liquid soap to limit exposure to germs. [Source]


pic of person washing hands, a soap and hand wash pics inset

Can I use detergent bar, detergent powder / liquid or dish wash bar for handwashing if I don't have soap?

Yes, in the absence of regular hand soap or hand wash, it's not a bad idea to wash your hands with a detergent bar or detergent powder.

Agreed, these are very harsh on the skin and may dry and damage your skin but in times like this, using these soaps as substitute for handwashing is a very effective way of getting rid of harmful germs on your hands.


Can I use a face wash as a soap substitute for handwashing?

As mentioned earlier, washing and rinsing with water is far more important than no washing at all. So if you don't have access to soap or a liquid hand wash but you have a face wash with you, you can use it to wash your hands.

Though a face wash is meant to cleanse facial skin and is likely to be mild, most face washes do work up a lather up and hence can get rid of gunk on your hands along with harmful microbes quite effectively, though perhaps not as effective as a soap
I do remember a few years ago, when I had to use the bathroom at a public place and there was no soap in sight, I luckily had a face wash with me which I used to clean my hands.

I think this type of cleaning was more effective than using a sanitizer as sanitizer isn't effective in removing dirt from your hands but something like face wash definitely does this in a better way.

Can I use a beauty bar soap for washing my hands?

A beauty bar soap or a beauty soap meant for washing your face can be used to wash your hands in the absence of any other soap.
As mentioned earlier, any soap is effectively good to get rid of the harmful germs on your hands as long as you wash your hands thoroughly.

Can I use shampoo or toothpaste to wash my hands?

When nothing else is available you can make do with things like toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, antiseptic mouthwash etc to clean your hands. However they may have a bit of lathering agents in them, but not enough ingredients that ensure clean hands.

You may even try hot water and salt to clean your hands in the absence of soap ; even vinegar with addition of baking soda could be of some help. But do scrub your hands vigorously to get rid of all dirt and grime and wash off most of the microbes from your hands.


Final Note

While washing your hands with soap and water is the best method to keep your hands clean and almost microbe-free, in the event of unavailability of soap, these alternatives may be tried. So what do you think? If  you know of other viable alternatives to soap for washing hands, do share in the comments.

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