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Petroleum in real life: Soap and hand sanitizers

Germ-fighting essentials are now more important than ever – and they’re oil products

As The World Turns… The Young and the Restless. These soap opera titles sound like the difficult times we’re all living through. Not to belittle the serious nature of the COVID-19 virus and its effect on work, life, social situations and more – but the point is: use soap.

We already know how soap and hand sanitizers are vital to helping us to stay healthy. But are you aware of the helping hand these products get from petroleum?

Your humble bar of soap has been based on petroleum derivatives for years. Petroleum is an important part of the soap recipe, which includes a combination of fats or oils, an alkali — basic ionic salt — and water. When these ingredients are combined in the proper proportions, they go through a chemical process called saponification, which results in soap.

The petroleum derivatives in soap are vital to enabling soap to pull dirt and germs from of our skin. This is absolutely critical during cold and flu season, and even more so during widespread viral infections such as we’re experiencing right now with COVID-19.

In recent weeks, public health officials and organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend washing hands with soap and water and advise that soap is one of our best weapons to deactivate the pathogen that causes COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus). But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 per cent alcohol can be effective.

Hand sanitizers also have a petrochemical connection. Petroleum-derived ethanol, along with propanol and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol – rubbing alcohol), are important to hand sanitizers because they’re highly soluble in water. It’s these ingredients that destroy pathogens which cause COVID-19 by breaking apart proteins, splitting cells into pieces or messing with a cell's metabolism.

So next time you wash your hands, think about those lesser-known ingredients in soap and sanitizers that help keep germs at bay. Yes petroleum, we’re looking at you. You deserve an elbow bump today.