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Today, we all do our best to protect ourselves from coronaviruses. But a lot of what people are doing doesn’t really help, and it could take away supplies from those who actually need them. Hank explains what does help, and how it prevents the spread of infection to be successful at protecting yourself as much as possible!

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[ ♪INTRO ].

It seems like this new coronavirus outbreak has turned a lot of us into germophobes. And like, for good reason!

The thing is, a lot of what people are doing doesn't really help — and could take away supplies from those who actually need them. And by understanding what does help, and how it prevents the spread of infection, you're much more likely to be successful at protecting yourself as much as possible without taking things away from people who need them the most. So watch this video and also, share this with as many people as possible!

Now, the most obvious thing you see people doing is wearing face masks — and you see people hoarding them. The problem is, they probably don't actually protect you from getting the virus. Which makes sense, given that face masks were designed to prevent sick people from infecting others.

They cover your mouth and nose in a way that filters most of the air you breathe out. But inhaling is a different story — there are plenty of gaps between the mask and your face, which makes them pretty ineffective at keeping particles out. Even those super-fancy N95 respirators you might have heard about have mixed results, and that's in people who undergo rigorous, yearly training to make sure they know how to use them properly.

We did a whole episode actually on why face masks don't protect you from the flu a couple of years ago, which you can check out if you're interested in learning more. Now, you might have heard some health professionals saying everyone wearing masks would decrease the number of infections. That's because it would prevent people who are infected but aren't really showing it from spreading their germs to the world around them.

But, complicating all this is the fact that, in many places, there simply aren't enough medical masks to go around. Healthcare workers and others who really need them are already low on supplies. Luckily, if your goal is to protect others, you don't need a medical mask.

Studies show that masks made from everyday items like T-shirts can reduce the germs that you emit into the world around you. So if you're not clearly sick, you can use a DIY mask—at least until manufacturers have caught up with the medical demand. And there are plenty of other things that you can do to protect yourself.

Like staying home, and washing your hands a lot. That's what all the experts are recommending. You know — use soap, wash for at least 20 seconds, make sure to scrub under your fingernails, stuff like that.

I have actually gone the extra mile and cut my fingernails quite short. In some places, you almost can't walk past a sink without seeing a sign telling you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing your hands. But maybe the best way to make sure you're washing your hands properly is to understand how it helps on a deeper level.

Almost any surface can have virus particles — whether because a sick person sneezed near it, coughed on it, touched it, or licked it, people are weird. If you touch that surface, and then you touch your eyes or nose or mouth, you've just exposed yourself to the virus, which cannot penetrate your skin, but can get in through what we called mucus membranes. The main goal with washing your hands is to scrub germs off.

Soap helps with that by making your skin slippery, so pathogens rinse away more easily. But with certain types of germs, soap can have an added benefit: killing them. A lot of microbes, including coronaviruses, are surrounded by a layer of fatty molecules.

Soap contains compounds that can rip those molecules apart and that destroys the virus's ability to infect you. And that brings us to another way to protect yourself: hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizers, specifically ones that contain at least 60% alcohol, can kill almost all of the coronavirus particles they come in contact with for long enough.

Like soap, alcohol kills coronaviruses by disrupting the membrane that surrounds them. But rather than straight-up ripping the membrane apart, alcohol interacts with the membrane in a way that makes it less stable and more permeable. Then, the alcohol molecules can actually get inside the virus and wreak havoc on its proteins, destroying them from within.

As with hand washing, experts recommend making sure the sanitizer covers all the nooks and crannies of your hands, and leaving it there for at least 20 seconds so the alcohol has enough time to kill the germs. That said, there's a shortage of hand sanitizer, too. So don't overdo it with the hoarding — just buy however many bottles you need, and leave the rest for everyone else.

Meanwhile, disinfectants can do for surfaces what hand sanitizer and washing with soap does for your hands. In earlier studies, researchers found that coronaviruses can stay alive on surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for a long time. And a recent study found that SARS-CoV-2 can live for 2-3 days on stainless steel and plastic.

It's worth noting that this study hasn't been peer-reviewed yet, which generally means scientists take the results with a grain of salt. But given the other studies, the results make sense. And if the viruses can hang around for days, disinfecting surfaces regularly is especially important.

You might think of going straight for the bleach, since it's usually considered a pretty hardcore disinfectant. And it's not a bad choice — chlorine bleach is super effective at killing viruses. Scientists aren't totally clear on how that works, but we know the super-reactive chlorine in the bleach destroys microbes pretty thoroughly.

But some experts have noted it's not always the best choice. It can damage surfaces like metals and clothing, and it might not be as effective outdoors. Plus, the fumes can irritate the lining of your respiratory tract, which is not ideal when you're trying to fight off a respiratory virus.

If you do opt for bleach, be sure to check the expiration date, because over time, bleach actually breaks down and loses its potency. You also, though, have other options. Alcohol-based wipes are effective, too.

And so is hydrogen peroxide. It produces super reactive charged particles known as free radicals, which are also great at ripping apart those outer membranes we keep talking about. So, even if masks probably won't help you, there are plenty of other tools in our collective coronavirus-fighting arsenal.

And now that you know how they work, you can go ahead and put them to good use. Stay safe! And thanks for watching this episode of SciShow!

And especially to our patrons on Patreon, who help keep SciShow free for viewers like you. If you found this episode helpful and want to help support the team here, you can learn more about joining our amazing patron community at And let us know if you have any other questions about the new coronavirus in the comments! [ ♪OUTRO ].