As COVID-19 and influenza continue to spread across the country, everyone from coworkers to the CDC wants you to wash your hands. Using face masks is ineffective (and makes it harder for health care workers to buy masks), and while hand sanitizer is a good option, it’s still second to good old fashioned hand washing.

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“There’s really no substitute for controlling the spread of viruses to hand washing—nothing we do is going to work as well as that,” says  Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center. “When you look at it historically, it used to be that infant mortality was a huge problem, right? A lot of it was because people weren’t appropriately doing hand washing, because we didn’t understand what germs were and how they worked.”

Why is washing your hands so effective? “Some of its mechanical, the act of scrubbing and rinsing that stuff off is carrying the deadly virus away,” says Dr. Buhr. “We know that soap helps break down the viruses because soap works by dissolving fats and lipids and so the viruses are surrounded in a lipid shell.” He says soap chemically destroys the virus.

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