When you wash your hands with soap and water using most commercial hand soaps, what do you see? Bubbles. When you load your washing machine with detergent and water, then spin them around, what do you see? Soap suds. Running a bath and putting in some bath gel, you see mounds of bubbles. Shampoo in your hair? Bubbles.
The practice of using soap to clean has been around for thousands of years, and whose production can be dated to as far back as 2800 BC. Long before they could explain it, ancient civilizations were able to observe that certain materials, in this case salt derived from animal fat or vegetable oils, were able to do a better job of cleaning than water alone, because oil (which is where dirt hides in) and water do not mix.
This principle is important to understand in handwashing, because when germs on the ground or on fecal matter get on your hands when you touch a contaminated surface, they attach to the natural oils on your skin and stay lodged there.
On a chemical level, dirt or oil under which germs hide is polar and has no charge, while water is polar. Rinsing with just water is ineffective against removing the germy oils that have lodged on your skin because water simply slips right past the oily dirt, without taking it along.
This is the crucial role that soap plays: its polar side binds with water, and its nonpolar side binds to the fatty germ-containing dirt.
What you’re really seeing when you see these soapy suds are simply soap molecules that trap air, forming a spherical shape—and these air pockets, their density, size, and thickness do not equate to cleaning power.
The only thing bubbles show is the attraction of a soap molecule to water, not its attraction to dirt.
However, we’ve been psychologically conditioned to associate lots of suds with greater cleanliness, which can be misleading. This leads sometimes to overuse of detergent, or soap, when we perceive low suds content.
We need to take into consideration, however, that many factors come into play in the formation of bubbles, depending on the type of soap used, and the water quality as well. Some types of soap form bubbles more easily, while others hold it longer. Others form more easily in soft water versus hard water, while still others are affected by cold versus hot water.
With these in mind, it would be helpful to be more mindful when it comes to our perception of soap use, and it’s effectivity. In everyday life, we should be using soaps right before we eat, or touch any surface that could potentially be contaminated, and we should also be aware of what we use to clean.
With the higher incidence of handwashing to curb the spread of disease, the likelihood of skin drying is increased, leading to further complications through cracked hands, further compromising the integrity of our skin's natural barrier.
Choosing products that contain sulfate-free ingredients that prevent stripping skin of it's natural moisture would be a conscious first step that balances the need to keep hands clean, without causing dryness.