Wear a Mask. No, Don’t Wear a Mask. Wait: Yes, Wear a Mask.

When it comes to whether everyday citizens like you and me should cover our faces, experts are divided. Here’s why — and what to actually do.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Why Health Experts are Divided

Whether face masks are effective at keeping you healthy depends on how a virus is transmitted. The novel coronavirus is a respiratory virus and respiratory viruses are generally spread via droplets (think: an infected person sneezes on you) or direct contact (an infected person sneezes into their hand and then touches a doorknob. You touch the doorknob, contaminating your fingers, and then touch your face).

“If someone makes a journey they would not otherwise make, or puts themselves into a riskier situation (infection-wise) because of perceived security from wearing a mask, then masks are more a problem than a solution.”

Including at distances beyond six feet. But whether pathogens travel that far depends on a ton of factors, including humidity levels and wind speeds. Early, non-peer-reviewed studies have found novel coronavirus aerosols may linger in healthcare settings. And while the mere presence of airborne particles doesn’t mean the pathogens are strong enough to spread infection, when you consider additional research suggesting these aerosols can stay viable in the air for up to 3 hours and the estimate that individuals with mild or no symptoms may be causing up to 79 percent of document cases of Covid-19, it is worrisome.

Two Types of Face Masks That Work

Another reason experts are divided? The limited science supporting the use of supply-constrained face masks. According to the best available research, there are two types of masks most likely to protect you from contracting the coronavirus or passing it on to others.

“Viruses can’t enter through the skin, so a mask literally provides a barrier to stop us from helping them get in by touching our mouths and noses.”

What’s the Deal with Cloth Face Masks?

Cloth face masks typically consist of one or more layers of fabric. They fit like a surgical mask and are primarily used to prevent the spread of infection from the wearer. These are the masks armies of volunteers have mobilized to create for healthcare professionals.

“Pandemics require us to change our behavior — our socialization, hygiene, work and more — collectively, and knowing our fellow citizens are on board is important for all efforts.”

“If someone makes a journey they would not otherwise make, or puts themselves into a riskier situation (infection-wise) because of perceived security from wearing a mask, then masks are more a problem than a solution,” says Davies.

Cloth Mask Best Practices

If you decide to make your own face mask, there are no shortage of tutorials online — Davies recently published the template and instructions she gave to volunteers in her study, and this one from the Hong Kong Consumer Council doesn’t even require fabric or a sewing machine — but know that a CDC-approved version doesn’t exist. Given the shaky evidence surrounding DIY options, you’ll want to optimize everything from the materials you use to how you handle the mask (more on that below).

  • “Always wear your face mask in the same orientation,” says Davies. The same side should always face outward. Using two different colors or patterns to make your mask can help with this; or just mark one side with ink.
  • Remove the mask when eating; do not just pull it down onto your chin.
  • When taking off your mask, grasp the ties or elastics — not the front of the mask — to reduce the risk of contaminating your fingers.
  • If you’re using a reusable cloth mask, wash it after each use or, at the very least, place it in a paper bag to dry out, recommends the CDC. “I suggest that people forced to use cloth masks have at least two and cycle them, so that each one can be washed and dried after daily use,” writes MacIntyre.

Written by

Former magazine editor and current freelance reporter who spends way too much time on PubMed. Let’s hang out: @dkos07. (she/her)

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