What you need to know about face masks and COVID-19

If you are looking for an image that screams coronavirus, it might be the face mask. The thin-folded material stretched across a wearer’s nose and mouth, then fastened behind their ears, has become part of the uniform for millions who wear masks to cover up when they venture out.

The images have convinced people that wearing face masks prevents transmission of COVID-19. The shelves in stores that usually stock them are empty. People who have hoarded masks are selling them online for astronomical prices. Masks have become so scarce that worried people are using any kind of mask they can get their hands on, or making their own.

So, let’s address some basic questions. Do masks really protect members of the public? If so, what kind of masks are out there and who should wear them? What is the correct way to use a mask?

What kind of masks are out there?

There are two main types of medical masks:

Surgical masks, also called face masks, are usually made of pleated paper or other non-woven material. They are often worn by surgeons to prevent their fluids, such as coughs or sneezes, from contaminating the operating area. They fit loosely and are not designed to filter out the smallest airborne particles.

N95 respirators, often referred to as masks, must be sized to the wearer so they fit snugly around the mouth and nose. The 95 in the name refers to the fact that they filter out 95% of airborne particles. These masks must meet specifications established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Who should wear masks for protection?

We’ll start with the easy part of this answer. Members of the public should not wear N95 respirators. They’re specifically designed for healthcare workers who are in close proximity to infected people. These masks have been used to protect workers from exposure to diseases like tuberculosis and measles because they filter out tiny particles that can travel through the air. The N95s fit so snugly that they cannot be used by men with beards.

When it comes to the less-protective-but-still-useful surgical masks, not all healthcare experts agree on whether healthy people gain a reasonable amount of protection by wearing them.

Some global health experts argue protective face coverings can block potential infection and reinforce a warning not to touch your face, which spreads germs. They suggest people use professionally manufactured masks, homemade ones or bandanas when they go outside.

The Centers for Disease Control generally disagrees. It recommends face masks for people who are coughing and sneezing to prevent them from spreading COVID-19 to those around them. The CDC says people in close contact with an infected person may also benefit from wearing masks. It has, however, argued that masks are not designed to protect healthy people from getting the virus and there are reasons the general public shouldn’t wear them:

  • A mask can actually promote the spread of germs.
  • The masks become damp while being worn and should be thrown out after each use.
  • People wearing them may touch their face more as they adjust their masks, which can promote infection

What is the correct way to wear a mask?

If you are wearing a mask, it’s important that you know how to put it on, take it off and dispose of if correctly. The World Health Organization has these recommendations:

  • Before putting on a mask, clean your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer or wash them thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with the mask, and do your best to eliminate gaps between the mask and face that would allow germs to enter.
  • Avoid touching the mask while wearing it. Sanitize your hands if you do.
  • Do not reuse a face mask. Replace it as soon as it is damp.
  • When removing the mask, do not touch the front of it where germs may have collected. Remove it from behind using the ear loops. Then throw it out immediately and clean your hands.

DIY face masks?

The internet is on fire with videos, patterns and plans for making your own face masks. The CDC previously said the materials you use and your homemade designs probably won’t be very effective.

But in updated guidelines published since the onslaught of the coronavirus, the CDC said homemade masks including bandanas and scarves can be used as alternatives if you don’t have a mask and you are caring for a sick person.