We’re seeing a lot more face masks all around. You probably have some questions about the different masks. Masks can help stop the spread of coronavirus not just by protecting the wearer, but by preventing the wearer — who could be an asymptomatic spreader — from breathing and spitting their germs everywhere.
First you ask, can a mask really keep you from catching the virus?
To answer that, it helps to clarify which kinds of masks we’re talking about.
Because experts don’t yet know exactly how the virus is transmitted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that health care workers treat it like an airborne pathogen — germs that can travel in particles or droplets in the air. That means health care workers interacting with a coronavirus patient should wear a heavy-duty mask called an N95 respirator. These respirators are designed to fit tightly around the nose and mouth, and, when worn correctly, block out at least 95% of small airborne particles, according to the CDC.
But wearing an N95 respirator is serious business, says Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Health care workers who use these respirators are required by law to undergo an annual fit test — a check to make sure the mask forms a tight seal on the wearer’s face so that contaminated air can’t leak in. Although N95s are disposable, workers must also demonstrate that they know how to put on and wear the model that they are using.
This type of mask is “difficult to wear” because it’s uncomfortable, Schaffner says. Some people find it harder to breathe when wearing the N95. But “that’s the kind of protection that really works.”
While N95 respirators are available for the public to purchase, there’s no recommendation from health agencies for the general public to wear them. By contrast, surgical masks — those cheap, disposable, gauzy masks that often come in blue or green — are less uncomfortable. But Schaffner says the scientific evidence that “there might be a benefit for people in the community wearing [surgical] face masks is very, very meager. The general sense is perhaps, but they’re certainly not an absolute protection.” In other words, they do provide some benefit but they’re far from foolproof.
Surgical masks are just a physical barrier that will protect you against “a visible splash or spray of fluid or large droplets,” explains Raina MacIntyre, an infectious disease researcher and professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who has studied the efficacy of face masks. These masks fit loosely on the face around the edges, so they don’t completely keep out germs, and small airborne particles can still get through.
MacIntyre’s research has shown that N95 respirators offer far superior protection. But in one study, she did find that family members who wore surgical masks when caring for a sick child at home had a lower risk of getting infected. But the benefit only occurred if people wore the masks “all the time when you are in the same room as the infected person,” MacIntyre says — something many families in the study found difficult to do. “But if they did wear it, yes, they got protection.”
MacIntyre notes that cloth masks — which people wash and reuse — are also common in Asian countries. She says there’s no evidence to show they have any benefit, and her research suggests they “may actually be harmful,” because infrequent washing and moisture retention can make cloth masks a breeding ground for pathogens.
And be warned: If you use a mask incorrectly, or start acting recklessly because you’re wearing a mask, it could actually hurt you more than it helps.
If you fidget with your mask, and especially if you touch your face in the process, you can infect yourself with virus-containing droplets your mask caught. If you reuse a mask without cleaning it, you can breathe in or otherwise expose yourself to droplets the mask captured last time. If you generally ease up on good hygiene or social distancing because you’re wearing a mask, you’re putting yourself — and your community — at greater risk.
The CDC offers some tips for how to properly use a mask. Above all, don’t touch the mask and then touch other parts of your face, especially your eyes, mouth, and nose. The entire point of this fabric is to shield you from outside germs. So you don’t want to touch the part of the mask doing the shielding and then the parts of your face that are vulnerable to infection.
You should also wash your hands before and after taking off a mask — before to avoid getting anything on your face and mask, and after to get rid of anything that was on your mask. Remove the mask with the loops, not by touching the front. If possible, throw away disposable masks after using them. And if you can’t throw a mask away, make sure to thoroughly disinfect it with ultraviolet light sterilizers — not something most people have around — or, if using a cloth product, throw it in the wash or clean it with soap and water.
For some people, it might make sense to have multiple masks around if you have to go out multiple times on a particular day. The important thing, though, is to throw a recently used mask in the laundry or in the wash as soon as possible and avoid touching it at all until it’s clean. Do not keep dirty masks around your house, where people can easily touch them and potentially infect themselves.
But masks do not make you invincible. They can’t replace good hygiene — Wash your hands! Don’t touch your face! — and social distancing, both of which have been key to stemming the coronavirus even in Asian countries where widespread mask use was already common. Epidemiological models also suggest coronavirus cases will rise if social distancing measures are relaxed, potentially causing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths. That’s true whether people are gathering wearing masks or not.
Check out my related post: How to boost your immune system?