In the early days of the COVID19 pandemic, you might have heard that it wasn’t necessary to wear a mask. Health experts told people to save masks for medical professionals, fearing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for people who needed it most. We even repeated that advice in our own coronavirus updates on March 3rd and March 16th.
But since then, the advice has changed.
Health officials now strongly encourage people to wear face masks when they’re out in public or in close contact with people.
So, which is it?
Should you wear a face mask or not?
It turns out that face masks do offer some protection — particularly for the people around you. The type of mask matters, too, as does how you wear it and other precautions you’re taking.
With so much still unknown about this pandemic and how the novel coronavirus spreads and lingers, you will likely hear conflicting advice as time goes on. Science isn’t perfect.
But in this case, the consensus from epidemiologists — those are people who study disease patterns — and other health experts is that you should wear a face mask.
Here’s what you need to know about face masks and COVID19.
Your mask can protect others.
Wearing a mask alone won’t keep you from getting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID19. But a cloth face mask can protect the people around you. In fact, that’s the #1 reason you need to wear a mask when you’re out and about.
Your mask protects others. Others’ masks protect you.
That’s because COVID19 is stealthy. You can:
- Have COVID19 without any symptoms at all
- Spread the disease a couple of days before you have symptoms
- Spread the virus even if you never develop symptoms
Researchers are still working out just how contagious and how viral this virus really is. They do know that it’s primarily spread via respiratory droplets from things like coughing, sneezing and talking. That’s why health experts recommend keeping 6 feet away from people, washing your hands more often and wearing a face mask.
A face mask keeps your germs to your own face. If everyone (who can) wears a mask, the risk of transmission drops substantially.
Bottom line? You can have COVID19, not realize it and spread it far and wide without ever knowing.
And for vulnerable populations — those with compromised immune systems, people with existing health problems or older adults — COVID19 isn’t “just” the flu. It’s potentially deadly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a cloth face anywhere it’s hard to maintain social distancing. Think grocery stores, pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other closed buildings.
It’s less clear whether you need to wear a face mask outside, but the same rule of thumb applies. If you’re surrounded by people and it’s hard to stay 6 feet away, wear a mask.
But if you’re in your own backyard, hiking a trail that isn’t packed or just going for a solo run, you probably don’t need a face mask.
Material matters — to some degree.
Some of the confusion about wearing a face mask comes from the type of mask itself. There are three different types:
- Cloth face covering: Made from cloth, of course, cloth face masks offer the least amount of protection. That’s why they wouldn’t work for nurses, doctors or other people working directly in the front lines of the pandemic. These masks are easy to find or make, reusable and inexpensive.
- Surgical mask: You’ve likely seen these masks at your doctor’s office. Made of disposable material, surgical (aka medical) masks filter out larger particles from the air. They may also offer some protection against respiratory droplets. These masks aren’t easy to find and should only be used by healthcare workers.
- N95 mask: Like surgical masks, N95 respirators should be reserved for medical workers. N95 masks filter out large and small particles, making them more effective against respiratory droplets. Medical workers who wear N95s have to pass a fit test to make sure the mask seals correctly. These masks also have a valve to make breathing easier, but the air from that valve is unfiltered — meaning potentially infected.
The CDC’s recommendations for the public on wearing a mask are actually for cloth face masks. Healthcare workers nationwide have struggled to get enough personal protective equipment and gear to protect themselves. Specialized equipment should be reserved for people in the healthcare field.
For everyone else, a cloth face covering or mask works well enough to limit transmission. Again, cloth face masks don’t protect against infection. But they do limit spread if you’re already sick and don’t know it.
Can’t sew? You can assemble a makeshift mask.
Cloth face masks are fairly easy to buy these days, thanks to crafters and entrepreneurs who’ve made a business selling face masks during the pandemic. But they can take a while to arrive if you order them online.
If you’re handy with a sewing machine or thread and needle, you can make a mask yourself. There are plenty of patterns and how-tos online.
But if you can’t sew, don’t want to or don’t have time, then you can make a mask with things you have around the house, including:
- Old T-shirts
- Bandanas or scarves
- Scraps of quilter’s fabric
- Old cotton pillowcases
Use multiple layers of fabric for better protection, and use rubber bands or hair elastics for the earpieces. It’s also a good idea to have a few reusable cloth masks handy as backups.
If you need a place to start, the U.S. Surgeon General made a video for a quick, no-sew option you can try right now.
How you wear a face mask matters, too.
You’ve got a mask and you’re ready to protect the people around you. Great! Just keep the following tips in mind for how to wear a mask the right way:
- Wash your hands before you put it on.
- Make sure the mask fits snugly against your face while still allowing you to breathe comfortably.
- Attach using ear loops or ties, whichever makes sense based on your mask.
- Don’t touch your mask while you’re wearing it; if you do, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer right after.
- Once you’re done wearing the mask, take it off using the ties at the back or ear loops (depending on mask type) and discard into your laundry bin.
- Wash your cloth after each use. You can throw it in with your regular laundry.
One important note: kids under age 2 shouldn’t wear a face covering. Younger toddlers and babies may not be able to breathe properly in them.
Wearing a cloth face mask can help protect other people if you’re sick and don’t realize it. But just wearing a mask isn’t enough to combat the pandemic. Wash your hands often, stay 6 feet apart from other people when you’re in public and avoid going out altogether if you’re sick.
Together, these are the most effective tools we have right now of stopping the spread of COVID19.