Masks are here to stay. Regardless of their rocky status at the start of this pandemic, face coverings are officially a fixture of American life, a visible, enduring legacy of the pandemic that also helps reduce the spread of influenza and as-yet-undiscovered viruses sure to vex us in the future.
“Masks are one of the easiest tools we have for reducing Covid spread, and so we’ll probably need them for many months to come — they’re going to be with us as long as Covid is a problem, and maybe even longer,” says Eleanor Murray, ScD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
But the evolving science of both face coverings and the airborne transmission of the virus has been befuddling, the explosion of mask choices bewildering. And though manufacturers are wrangling over the development of standards or a rating system for mask effectiveness, any helpful labeling is likely months away.
So to help you develop your mask strategy, we’ve unmasked the latest science and advice on choosing between disposable and reusable options, getting the right fit, overcoming the many frustrations, developing a comfortable routine, and even dealing with people who refuse to mask up.
Do masks work?
Yes. Lab tests show that masks limit the flow of respiratory droplets that can carry coronavirus particles from an infected person into the air. As a bonus, masks can also reduce spread of the flu. “We’ve been seeing dramatically reduced rates of other respiratory diseases in many places” thanks to mask-wearing, Murray tells Elemental.
A properly fitted mask of good-quality material can filter out large droplets, the type that can be visible when someone sneezes or shouts, and also smaller, virus-packing microscopic droplets called aerosols that can remain airborne and infectious for hours.
Research has shown that in countries where mask-wearing is a cultural norm, or where it’s been mandated, Covid-19 outbreaks have been less severe.