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Soap: The Overlooked Prepping Essential That Will Save Your Life

Ask any prepper what the five most important tools in the Prepper toolbox, and we are willing to bet that not one of them would answer “soap”. 

Unless, of course, you ask us. 

The single biggest jump in human health and lifespan didn’t come with the discovery of antibiotics or anesthesia (welcome as they were) or genetic testing that now allows teenagers to wave a medical report while blaming their parents for everything.  It came with improved hygiene.

Seriously, the mortality rate of mothers who came to Semmelweis’s Vienna hospital was about 20%. (Do the math and that means a woman was about as likely to die in childbed as not by the time she had three children.) . When he simply instituted rigorous handwashing for care workers between patients, the death rate dropped below 2%. 

Washing hands after coming in contact with sick people sluices their germs down the drain instead of your carrying them around; washing off dirt reduces chances for soil bacteria – like Tetanus, the one that causes lockjaw – will get into wounds; washing hands and gear between handling raw and ready to serve meat reduces the the transfer of the microbes that cause food poisoning … you see the trend. 

Cleanliness is a major roadblock between us and the resurgence of these nasty problems, and simple washing with soap is ridiculously effective for how cheap it is — and how easy to stock as a prep.  Most sorts are inexpensive, compact, and long-term stable without environmentally controlled storage.

Salty and I have recently read several cringeworthy explanations in prepper literature about how soap actually works, so let’s take a minute and talk about that for a moment:

Soap molecules are what’s called amphoteric:  one end of them is hydrophilic, wanting to hang out with water, and the other end is hydrophobic, wanting to hang out with oils and other fats.  Their fat-loving ends surround the bacteria, bits of oil, or whatever; lifting them off the surfaces their stuck to and enclosing them in a little bubble of soap molecules (called a micelle).  Then the water-loving ends on the outside of the micelle help the particle dissolve into the water and get washed away.

It’s like a bunch of bodyguards taking care of a rock star.  Only the bodyguards are allowed to touch both the rock star (he’s the dirt/germ/fat, no judgement here) and the crowd (they’re the water molecules).  The bodyguards can then surround the rock star and usher him out through the crowd, and the rock star and the crowd don’t really interact.  This particular rock star’s not into that, you see.  He’s hydrophobic, and that means water-fearing.

This is a micelle. The squiggly tails would snuggle up to the hydrophobic germ and hold it in the center. The red heads don’t mind associating with the water. The whole micelle, with germ inside, can now easily wash away. Thanks Stephen Gilbert* for the image.

The hydrophobic things are the things you need soaps to clean up, because they won’t dissolve in the water and wash away without that help.  Getting rid of other hydrophilic molecules, like salt, is cake:  Just sluice water over them and they dissolve into it and are removed.  The combination of soap and water, then, can remove a very wide variety of things from surfaces; including microbes.

Warm water makes soap work better because, as we all know, it makes fat molecules more mobile.  Oils pour better when warm, molecules wash off better when warm.

Why is the power to wash things away so very powerful?  Because so much of human disease is caused by the microbes.  You won’t ever wash all of them away, but reducing their numbers is the key to preventing illness. You touch something tainted with the body fluids of a sick person (maybe they coughed near it), you pick up a load of infective microbes, but then you wash most of them off before you pick up your french fries, and you’re golden.  (And so are the fries, we hope.)

So let’s stock it up — soap for washing people and dishes, in particular.  There’s no need for a big dissection of ‘prepper friendly soaps’ since there’s a thousand good choices out there. (Ok, one tiny dissection, more of a splinter removal really…the ‘antibacterial’ thing is marketing, not science.  That triclosan stuff causes more harm than good; soaps with it are not more effective than soaps without.)

O wait, what about those alcohol gels as germicides?  Way better than nothing, not as good as soap and water.  When you can’t get a real wash, the alcohol gel’s a good idea.  

Bleach is a great companion to soap; soap for the people and bleach for the surfaces or water disinfection.  More on that here:

Bleach is a Prepper’s Friend … temporarily

Pro tip: Washing hands without running water is much more of a hassle, so people resist doing it as much as they should (me being one of those people).  Here’s an invention suggested to me by a nurse prepper that I use the heck out of at The Place – just plan to replace the milk jug every year, it degrades in the sun: 

The Tippy Tap: Keeping it clean when water’s tight

One last thing… soap is never, ever a munchy…. don’t eat it. Seriously, how is this even a thing?


*By Stephen Gilbert [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Salty and Spice

2 Comments

  1. I agree with how important soap is to fight off the microbes. The Romans bringing in clean water and carrying waste water was a huge element in allowing cities to be populated with large numbers. Of course we all know that safe water is a main item.

  2. Being a long time prepper, I’ve always had a good supply of soaps and detergents and I keep dated bleach for various sanitary uses. Back to soaps: I’m a yard sale fanatic and have stumbled onto some great buys, and since this is about soaps, I hit one sale that was being staged by a maid from a closed motel. She had a large plastic tote filled with all the motel bathroom accessories from the motel. Several hundred bars of soap, shampoos, creme rinse and lotions, all small personal sizes, but lots of them. Another sale, put on by a party that did buyouts provided me with about 50 full size bars of “spring smelling soap.” Added to what I had already obtained on my own I think I’m good for a lifetime. Yard sales are a great place to obtain prepper supplies, so don’t overlook them. Last comment: A brand new, never used Big Berkey 2.23 gallon filter, $8.00! “You must really like coffee to buy a big pot like that!” I sure do……..

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