Soap and syndets: differences and analogies, sources of great confusion

Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2020 Nov;24(21):11432-11439. doi: 10.26355/eurrev_202011_23637.


Soap has been used by humankind since ancient times and was probably already known to the Sumerians. It is a fatty acid salt obtained from the reaction of a strong base with a fatty substance of animal (tallow) or plant origin (oil). This reaction is called saponification. Syndets, on the other hand, are much more recent and have been in use for about a century. In the case of liquid syndets, they are mainly alkyl sulphates and their derivatives alkyl ether sulphates while isethionates and sarcosinates are more commonly found in solid syndets. Synthetic soaps and detergents are surfactants and, as such, they have detergent properties. The way soap works accounts for its antimicrobial properties. Thanks to its amphiphilic structure, it is able to interact with the lipid membranes of microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, etc.) and inactivate them. In this coronavirus pandemic period, health authorities worldwide recommend hand washing with soap and water. We therefore wanted to provide a summary of the chemical characteristics and applications of soaps, on the one hand, and synthetic detergents, on the other. Soap is not the only product used for hand hygiene and, given the current situation, alternatives are complex and varied.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents / chemistry
  • Anti-Infective Agents / pharmacology*
  • Anti-Infective Agents / standards
  • Betacoronavirus / drug effects*
  • COVID-19
  • Communicable Disease Control / methods
  • Communicable Disease Control / standards
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Coronavirus Infections / transmission
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Detergents / chemistry
  • Detergents / pharmacology*
  • Detergents / standards
  • Hand Disinfection / methods*
  • Hand Disinfection / standards
  • Humans
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / transmission
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Soaps / chemistry
  • Soaps / pharmacology*
  • Soaps / standards


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Detergents
  • Soaps