With the spread of COVID-19 affecting the entire world, it’s become more important than ever to wear a face mask or face covering. While many Asian countries have long adopted this practice, science is now showing that mask-wearing is effective at curbing the spread of viruses making mask-wearing more common and at times mandated in certain parts of the world that did not previously wear face masks. Here is what you need to know about face masks and why you should be wearing them.
How a Face Mask Prevents the Spread of COVID-19 and other Viruses
What many people get wrong about face masks is the belief that face masks will prevent you from getting sick. Most face masks won’t prevent you from catching airborne viruses, however, face masks are made to help prevent you from getting other people sick. Wearing a face mask properly, in combination with good hand hygiene and social distancing, is the best way to help keep you and other people around you healthy. A face mask works to prevent spread saliva and respiratory droplets that can contain germs and viruses from when we talk, breathe, sneeze or cough. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many studies have come to confirm that wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to help prevent the spread of viruses.
Different types of masks
There are three main types of face coverings. Each varies in price and availability, with the general public being advised to wear either surgical or fabric masks while in public.
N95 respirator: These masks are more expensive and often in shorter supply than surgical masks but they are generally more effective than other types of masks due to their fit and design. As such, these masks should be reserved for medical professionals. N95 respirator masks became more well-known during the SARs outbreak in 2003. N95 respirators are tight-fitting and single-use masks that can filter out at least 95 percent of both large airborne droplets and aerosols.
Surgical/medical masks: These single-use masks were originally made for doctors, dentists, and surgeons to prevent bacteria and viruses from passing from doctor to patient. They are loose-fitting and often made with three or more layers. While effective at filtering out large airborne particles, they're looser fit makes them more prone to having air and contaminants flow out of its edges.
Fabric masks: Often handmade from a variety of materials, these masks can vary in their shape, fit, as well as effectiveness. What makes these masks appealing is that they can be made with more organic materials and are reusable. Some fabric masks can even be fitted with an additional filter. Studies are coming to show that fabric masks, especially those made with multiple layers of cotton, can be nearly as effective as surgical masks in slowing the spread of viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also now recommend that the general public wear fabric masks. In one study, varying fabric materials and thickness had between a 49% and 86% filtration rate.
Why You Should Wear a Face Mask
The CDC as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recommend that the general public wear a mask while in a public setting. While this wasn’t always the recommendation, science is starting to show and associate face masks with a reduction in the spread of the COVID-19 virus and other illnesses, which has resulted in more governments and businesses adopting mask mandates. It’s especially important during the pandemic since there is a high prevalence of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, which means that you may have the virus and not show any visible symptoms or signs.
In many Asian countries, like Hong Kong, where wearing face masks in public has become nearly universal, transmission rates of the virus have been very low considering population density and with minimal lockdown or social distancing implementations. In the US, where transmission rates have been high and mask-wearing generally low there was a study done within fifteen states, including the District of Columbia that looked at the virus after masks were mandated. The study showed a significant slowing in the spread of virus after the mask mandate was implemented.
In one experiment that used a high-speed video, it demonstrated how hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometres were generated even when a person was merely speaking, but that nearly all the droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered with a simple fabric. Further, another study showed a substantial reduction in the transmission of the flu or a cold virus when those who were unwell wore a surgical mask.
As the COVID-19 virus is so contagious, it is more important than ever to take these face mask recommendations seriously to ensure the safety of your friends, family, and especially those who are immune-compromised and at risk. By wearing a face mask, you could be sparing someone or someone they love from the COVID-19 virus.
Mask Wearing and Hygiene Tips to Stay Healthy
- Wash your hands frequently with soap for 20-30 seconds. If you’re unable to wash, use hand sanitizer (with a minimum of 70% alcohol) after touching any public surfaces.
- Avoid going out in public as well as any social gatherings if possible.
- If you have to go out in public, always wear a mask, avoid crowds and social distance (1.5-meter minimum) when possible.
- Wash and/or sanitize your hands before and after putting on or taking off your mask.
- Ensure that the mask covers both your mouth and nose. Don’t wear below your nose or your chin.
- Ensure the mask is snug behind your ears.
- Don't touch your mask while wearing it.
- Single-use masks should generally be only be worn time. Wearing them more than once increases the risk of germs being spread.
- If you’re removing your mask to eat or drink, place the mask in a bag or appropriate container as to avoid it potentially contaminating other surface areas. Put your mask back on right away after you have finished eating/drinking.
- Wash or sanitize your hands if you accidentally touch your mask.
- For fabric masks, once dirty, should be put in a sealable bag until you’re able to wash it.
- For fabric masks, once soiled, they should be placed in a sealed bag until they can be washed.
- Always wash your hands after removing your mask.
- For single-use masks, ensure that they are disposed of properly.
- Face masks are not a substitute for social distancing or good hand hygiene.
- Don’t put a face mask on those who have breathing difficulties.
- Don’t put a face mask on children under the age of two.
For kids that aren’t used to wearing a mask, get them used to wearing one at home in intervals. This will help kids get used to wearing them in a public setting or when they go to back school in which it may be mandatory.
In combination with good hand hygiene and social distancing, wearing a mask is an inexpensive, easy, sustainable, and effective method to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.