This Woman Is Trying To Bring Hand Soap To Everyone. Here's Why That's So Important

Photo: Soapply

Today is Global Handwashing Day. While the occasion doesn't have the same recognition or star power as the Halloweens or New Year's Eves of the calendar, it's an important celebration of an oft-overlooked fact: Hand-washing with soap literally saves lives.

We live in an age when up to 1.7 million children under the age of 5 die every year from diseases that could have been prevented if they'd had access to clean water and soap—something that most of us take for granted every time we visit the bathroom.

Squeaky clean beginnings

Nobody is more passionate about solving the sudsy injustice than Mera McGrew. She kicked off her career studying antimicrobial compounds found in nature, scouring aquatic regions around the world for natural immunities that could be emulated in pharmacies. From there, she transitioned over to conservation work, exploring the globe with environmental organizations National Geographic and ocean conservation organization Mission Blue.

Her travels eventually culminated in Africa, where she explored a variety of social and environmental issues in over a dozen regions. Through it all, the thing she couldn't get her mind off was soap. After visiting schools and seeing kids missing out on the opportunity to write their own future because they lacked access to something so simple, so fixable, she returned to the States on a mission.

Cleaning up an industry.

"Sitting in a coffee shop in NYC, it's really easy to overlook the importance of a sink and soap to wash your hands with," she explains, over a coffee downtown. "But in certain parts of the world, it represents a barrier: a barrier to education, to equality, to opportunity, to health. People don't realize a simple act has such huge power."

To become part of the solution, McGrew launched a product that would have far-reaching impact: Soapply, an environmentally friendly hand soap that solves a need for conscious consumers in the United States as well as hand-washers worlds away.

On a surface level, Soapply aims to tackle the problems of many hand soaps in America these days: They're packed with chemicals, haven't been tested for safety, and come packaged in unsustainable materials. Her product is a clean, natural, unscented formula of aloe vera and food-grade organic oils that come in a minimalist, recycled glass bottle.

Photo: Soapply

Once you look a little closer, though, you see that Soapply also has a huge philanthropic component. With a label that reads "This is more than soap," it calls attention to the fact that by using a bottle, you're also funding efforts to bring soap to schools in Tigre, Ethiopia. Especially for young girls who are getting their periods, clean hands can literally mean access to education. Schools in that region report that about 70 percent of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating, largely because they have nowhere to wash up. The longer these girls stay in school, the more potential they have to change the world. Ultimately, McGrew hopes to use Soapply to bring soap to schools around Africa and fund data collection that shows just how many lives we can save simply by giving people access to soap.

"Hand-washing is something that connects all of us. There are very few things we all need and depend on—food is one; water is one; soap is one. I think it's this pretty amazing symbol as well," she smiles. "To think that when you're washing your hands, there's someone across the globe, regardless of race, age, and gender, that's also needing to wash theirs."

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How you can get involved.

Problems can only be solved if they're known. For Handwashing Day, McGrew is encouraging people to spread the word by looking into Soapply and its #HandModelsWanted campaign that asks them to take a photograph raising their hand for the movement or getting involved with nonprofits making a difference. Here are a few of her top picks:

  1. Charity: Water makes hand-washing possible by bringing water to developing countries that need it.
  2. Splash focuses on making sure that the water people are using is clean and safe for drinking.
  3. Plan USA helps provide sustainable, scalable sanitation systems around the world.

At the end of the day, though, she says it doesn't really matter how you engage, as long as you do something. "The important part of this is building awareness. In a time when our news cycle is increasingly depressing and can get overwhelming, it's amazing to have the opportunity to get involved in something that has a known solution."

Looking to speak up on more causes you care about? This guide to activism can help you get started.

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