Face Masks: Myths and Facts

confused woman in face mask

Many places now require face masks in public to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Before you disregard those policies because you're not among the most vulnerable groups, consider how your actions might affect someone else.

You may never get seriously ill even if you have COVID-19. Some people to whom you accidentally transmit the virus might not either. But somewhere down the line of interaction, a more vulnerable person might get extremely sick and could potentially die. Wearing a mask reduces the chances of those tragic accidents.

Myth: People With No Symptoms Don't Need Masks

Fact: Many people with COVID-19 have no symptoms and are still contagious.

The United States Centers for Disease Control recommends that people wear face masks to help flatten the curve of the infection's transmission rate, and the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, has created a video tutorial in support of wearing cloth masks.

Practicing social distancing, washing hands, not touching your face, and staying at home have helped slow the spread, but at some point, most people need to make a grocery or pharmacy run, or complete another necessary errand.

When you go out, you should wear a mask to help protect others in case you're sick and don't know it.

mother putting hand sanitizer on a young boy's hands

Myth: Cloth Face Masks Don’t Work

Fact: Cloth masks help stop us all from spreading the virus.

While homemade cloth masks are not suitable for hospital workers fighting daily exposure to COVID-19, they provide some protection for the general public when people have to venture out for necessary activities.

The main way cloth masks protect us is not by blocking transmission droplets coming from other people, but by preventing the person wearing a mask from transmitting those droplets to people around them.

home made cloth face masks

Myth: Masks Can Replace Social Distancing

Fact: Cloth face mask coverings are not a 100% solution.

Cloth masks don't form a seal to the face, and they can't prevent droplets from landing on other parts of a body. With a pandemic of this magnitude, and not much experience to draw from, nothing can take the place of safe distancing, proper hand washing, and quarantining ourselves as much as possible.

A face mask may lead to a false sense of security, so stay true to the current requirements for social distancing (at least six feet between people, more if possible) and respect the health of others by protecting them from your own breath.

two people waving at each other while social distancing in face masks

Myth: All Masks Can be Safely Reused

Fact: Cloth masks can be washed and reused. Reusing N95 masks is more difficult.

Surgical masks are designed to be single-use. N95 masks are also ideally single-use and in normal hospital operations are disposed of after exposure to sick patients.

Because they are in short supply, however, medical masks are currently being reused in many hospitals, but likely with compromised integrity. Medical experts are working hard to safely sanitize professional protective gear for front line healthcare workers. At the moment, though, the only masks that can be reused with confidence are cloth masks.

Any mask getting reused should be properly washed and sanitized after use to ensure you don’t contaminate yourself the next time you touch it. Always exercise proper technique when removing and handling masks. Experts recommend you remove them from behind without touching the front of the mask, being careful not to touch your nose, eyes, or mouth.

Always wash your hands immediately after taking off a mask.

Myth: Cloth Masks Provide the Same Protection as N95 Masks

Fact: N95 masks fit tightly and filter 95% of particles larger than .3 microns across.

n95 face masks

Unlike cloth masks, N95 masks have an electrostatic barrier. When these masks fit snug against the face they're protecting, they block almost all microscopic particles from passing through. Surgical masks don't adhere to the face, and primarily provide protection from large droplets, sprays of bodily fluids, and splashes.

Cloth masks aren't dense enough to protect a wearer from microscopic droplets, although the more dense the material, the better protection they can offer.

Myth: Babies and Should Wear Masks

Fact: Masks can be dangerous for very young or incapacitated people.

The U.S. CDC recommends against putting a mask on a child under two years old. You also shouldn't put a mask on someone who can't remove the mask on their own.

The Bottom Line

We don't yet know what normal will look like once this pandemic has eased, or how long it will take before we can return to mask-free public interaction without risking preventable deaths and dangerous strain on our health care institutions.

Most challenging of all, we don't know how long it will be until we have a reliable treatments, antibody tests, and vaccines. While our scientists and health workers make progress toward these vital goals, let's all work together to keep as many people safe and healthy as we possibly can.