By NicolePublished On: August 5, 2020Last Updated: October 4, 2022
Recent studies have shown that face masks help slow the spread of diseases within communities, even when worn by healthy individuals. This health tip is especially applicable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, where asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus may be possible. Governments and medical experts constantly remind us to wear a mask in public, but we might get a little confused with all the conflicting information on the news. How exactly does wearing a face mask prevent the spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2? We look at the different types of masks available as well as clarify some common misconceptions surrounding their use.
Table of Contents
How Masks Slow the Spread of COVID-19
Spoiler Alert: Wearing a face mask helps slow the spread of COVID-19, even if you’re healthy1. Like many other viruses, the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 has shown evidence of being asymptomatic. This means that seemingly healthy people can be infected with the virus but not show any signs of it. Wearing a face mask when you’re healthy protects the people around you in the event of asymptomatic infection.
Types of Face Masks and When to Use Them
N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are made to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles and droplets that are suspended in the air. Originally designed for use in mining, construction and painting, they are also somewhat effective in protecting the wearer from viruses. To maximize its efficiency, fit testing is required to identify the right size, style and model for each wearer. N95 masks are usually only used by health care providers and first responders, and as such, hoarding these masks could lead to a short supply for front-line workers2.
Surgical masks are commonly worn in hospitals, but their use among the general public has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Despite not being close-fitting like the N95 mask, these disposable masks are actually more fluid-resistant than you think! They are able to provide some protection against large respiratory droplets (coughs and sneezes), but they mainly prevent the wearer from releasing their own droplets into the environment3.
Cloth masks have also been popular during this pandemic and can be a highly adequate alternative to surgical masks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has endorsed the use of cloth masks to prevent community-based transmission4. Along with surgical masks, cloth masks can also help to slow down the spread of the virus in a similar manner. Furthermore, they are environmentally friendly, easy to make and washable.
A protective face shield is a piece of fixed clear plastic screen, attached to a headband for easier usage. It can protect both the wearer and the people around them from droplets. The plastic screen should cover the entire face, protecting the wearer’s eyes while preventing the spread of droplets from the nose and mouth. They are common among health care workers such as dentists, especially during certain procedures whereby they could potentially be in contact with blood or other substances.
While recommendations on using face shields with masks vary, the best safety measure would be to wear a cloth or surgical mask underneath5. Not only does this prolong the usability of the face mask, but it further decreases the surface area of your face exposed to the air, granting more protection and reducing transmission.
Myths and Misconceptions
Long-Term Mask Use is Unhealthy
Many countries and states have made wearing face masks in public mandatory. Coupled with the uncertainty over the length of the pandemic, people have started to worry that wearing a mask in the long term will be detrimental to their health. Although discomfort is definitely valid, the prolonged use of any face mask has not been shown or reported to cause severe respiratory problems.
Mask wearing is also widespread in healthcare, and there has been no evidence of any adverse and harmful effects from long-term use. Furthermore, if you discover a mask that is able to sequester carbon dioxide, you’ll probably get a call from the Nobel committee in Sweden.
Having a ‘Ventilation Hole’ Helps Breathing
Despite N95 masks gaining traction in this pandemic, there is actually a certain kind of N95 mask that can actually spread the virus even more. N95 masks with a ‘vent’ or ‘ventilation hole’ on it do more harm than good. This is because the vent is a one-way valve, designed to facilitate easy breathing. Masks with these vents allow droplets to be released from the mask, defeating the purpose of wearing it in the first place.
Even worse are the cloth masks that incorporate breathing vents! These do absolutely nothing to protect you or the people around you from infection. It might feel more comfortable wearing such masks as they keep your face cool, but you might as well take them off completely.
Improper Mask Wearing
Let’s get something straight. Face masks do little to protect you from airborne particles like viruses; their pores are far too large for that. Rather, they prevent you from spreading droplets of saliva when you cough, sneeze, speak or simply open your mouth. This, in turn, creates a healthier and safer environment for others. It’s a ‘your mask protects me and my mask protects you’ scenario.
That being said, just wearing a mask is not sufficient to prevent spreading the virus and protecting those around you. Its effectiveness boils down to ensuring it properly covers the right areas of your face. Below is a step-by-step checklist to guarantee that mask you wear is 100% effective!
A Guide to Wearing a Surgical Mask
Clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching the new mask. You don’t want to be touching your face if your hands are already contaminated.
Take a fresh mask that you’ve not used before and ensure there are no defects (eg. holes) on the mask). Don’t reuse surgical masks!
Find the top of the mask. The side that should be on top is recognized by the stiff, bendable edge that is supposed to adjust to the shape of your nose.
Determine which side of the mask is the front. This is very important, as the corrugated patterns are meant to deflect droplets downward when worn correctly. The side that faces away from you is usually the colored side.
Once you have the orientation right, place the ear loops around each ear and adjust accordingly.
Pinch the stiff, flexible edge to mold to the bridge of your nose.
Pull the bottom of the mask to fully cover your mouth and chin.
If it’s too loose or tight, there are masks of different sizes or adjustable bands especially useful for kids!
On the surface, mask-wearing might seem like an easy and non-essential practice. However, one tiny misstep can make all the difference. It is important to keep educating ourselves and dispelling fake news and misinformation. Until a viable vaccine is developed, wearing a face mask presents our best bet for protection from the coronavirus. By following sound science-based advice, we can create a safer environment for ourselves and the general public.
MacIntyre, C. R., & Chughtai, A. A. (2020). A rapid systematic review of the efficacy of face masks and respirators against coronaviruses and other respiratory transmissible viruses for the community, healthcare workers and sick patients. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 103629.
Abaluck, J., Chevalier, J. A., Christakis, N. A., Forman, H. P., Kaplan, E. H., Ko, A., & Vermund, S. H. (2020). The case for universal cloth mask adoption and policies to increase supply of medical masks for health workers. Available at SSRN 3567438.
Adams, J. (2020). Recommendation regarding the use of cloth face coverings, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
Greenhalgh, T., Chan, X. H., Khunti, K., Durand-Moreau, Q., Straube, S., Devane, D., … & Ireland, C. (2020). What is the efficacy of standard face masks compared to respirator masks in preventing COVID-type respiratory illnesses in primary care staff. Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.
Roberge, R. J. (2016). Face shields for infection control: A review. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 13(4), 235-242.
About the Author
Nicole was a junior science writer at FTLOScience from July to August 2020.