A Look at Masks: Do They Stop the Spread of Coronavirus?

With the COVID-19 global pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, officials are calling more than ever for people to wear masks to help slow the spread and flatten the curve. But with so many different types of masks and face coverings available, it can be difficult to know which work best and why.

Here’s an explanation of the different types of masks, and how effective they are at helping slow the spread of COVID-19.

Why Do We Need Masks?

To understand the need for masks, it’s important that we know how this coronavirus spreads. Like the flu and the common cold, this coronavirus needs a medium to spread. In this case, that medium is respiratory droplets, which are emitted from your nose and mouth when you talk, sing, cough, sneeze, or even just when you breathe.

These droplets can carry the virus through the air, where it can be inhaled by others. If someone touches a surface you coughed on and then touches their face later, the virus can spread this way too.  

Covid mask

Early recommendations confused many people when it comes to masks, since the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both initially told people that masks were not useful. Now that recommendation has flipped. Both recommend non-medical face masks to help slow the spread. Masks help contain the small respiratory droplets emitted from your mouth or nose when you speak, cough, or sneeze.

In a CDC press release from July 14, Director Robert Redfield said, “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting.”

In addition, now that we know there are asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, it is more important than ever that everyone wears a mask when they are out in public. Even if you don’t feel sick, it’s possible you could be spreading the virus. Of course, if you have any of the symptoms of covid-19, it is best to isolate, stay home, and contact your doctor immediately.

Types of Masks

Though N95 masks are the most effective at filtering particles when you breathe in, they should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders, who need a higher level of protection from the virus. For this reason, the CDC does not recommend N95s for the general public.

Instead, simple cloth face masks may be the most effective for the general public. The WHO and CDC recommend multiple-layer cloth masks worn over your nose and mouth. The mask should fit snugly against your face and either tie behind your head or loop behind your ears. You can make your own masks or buy them.

It’s important to wash your hands with soap and water before putting your mask on, and to avoid adjusting the mask throughout the day. When you remove your mask, untie the straps behind your head or remove the loops over your ears. Do not grasp the front of the mask to pull it off. Then, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Treat your mask like your underwear—don’t wear the same mask multiple days in a row! Wash reusable cloth masks in warm or hot soap and water and dry completely before reusing them.

Remember that a mask is not a license to engage in risky behavior. You should still avoid crowded indoor gatherings, for example. Follow all local guidelines from public health officials, and combine mask wearing with social distancing and frequent hand washing for the best protection.