When you search “soap” using Google, you get a result for a computer messaging protocol, followed by a Wikipedia page for the groundbreaking 1977 TV sitcom, followed by the website for the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology.
Such is the unsung nature of the greatest invention in human history.
Estimates of the number of lives saved by soap run into the hundreds of millions. Even today, the World Health Organization ballparks that more handwashing could save a million lives annually.
According to scientists, your skin can host 622 different types of bacteria. A few of these (bacteria, not scientists) are tiny assassins, just trying to break into a place they shouldn’t be. And soap is the main reason they fail.
The Center for Disease Control says that better hand-washing in health care would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. This revelation has an inauspicious origin. In Hungary in the mid-1800s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noted that when physicians washed their hands prior to delivering babies, fewer women died after giving birth. His colleagues were aghast at this finding, however, and angry at the insinuation that they were harming their patients. Dr. Semmelweis was ostracized, eventually institutionalized, and died after being beaten by guards.
The good doctor lost the battle, but won the war. Today, handwashing is unequivocally embraced by doctors. And Dr. Semmelweis has more hospitals named after him than any of his detractors.
Whenever “the greatest ever” is thrown around, there is bound to be debate. Some people say the invention of the wheel is more important. But the wheel has also resulted in millions of deaths. Granted, the inventor of the wheel could never have foreseen humans riding on four wheels taking one hand off the steering wheel to text message.
Soap never does anything bad to you, unless you get it in your eye while showering, or grew up in the 1950s and your mother washed your mouth out with soap for swearing.
Some say the computer is the world’s greatest invention. Or the internet. But between them, they’ve given rise to more viruses than nature. Soap kills viruses! Including the one that has been hogging all the headlines for the past two years.
And it doesn’t kill them by just washing them away. When you finally do arrive at the Wikipedia page for actual soap, you find that “… soap kills microorganisms by disorganizing their membrane lipid bilayer and denaturing their proteins.”
All this time, you thought you were just washing up before dinner. In reality, you’ve been wreaking havoc with germs’ lipid layers and laying a beatdown on their proteins.