Tackling common myths related to mask usage, benefits, and pitfalls to help keep you safe and minimize infection risks
There is a lot scientists still don’t know about COVID-19. However, we do know enough to easily debunk a lot of the misinformation out there. Proper mask use and the benefits medical masks offer in preventing the spread of COVID-19 are a common area of doubt or confusion. A quick search on social media or your favourite search engine is likely to turn up any number of answers.
So what should you believe? In this guide, we’re going to look at six popular myths and provide real answers about common misconceptions.
Myth #1: Medical Masks Can’t Protect You
We want to be completely clear: masks cannot offer 100% protection.
However, when combined with social distancing, frequent handwashing, avoiding touching your face and mouth, and staying home when possible, there is plenty of evidence to show masks effectively control viral spread.
They just might not help in ways most people would think.
In essence, masks are all about keeping your viral load out of the surrounding environment.
Sure, they also offer filtration, but most masks aren’t guaranteed to completely filter the smallest particle sizes.
Despite this, they are excellent at slowing down the speed at which particles move.
This means when you (or someone around you wearing a mask) sneeze, cough, or otherwise eject viral particles into the air, they will either be stopped by your mask or at least won’t travel nearly as far.
Studies continue to conclude that exposure times are a significant component of COVID transmission and infection rates.
With this in mind, a mask’s ability to help keep viral particles out of the environment (and therefore out of your nasal passages, off your skin, and out of your body) has obvious benefits.
For more information, consult the following resources:
- The Wall Street Journal: Face Masks Really Do Matter. The Scientific Evidence Is Growing
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Considerations for Wearing Masks
- Nature Research Journal: Face Masks: What the Data Say
- The Mayo Clinic: COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer?
- Government of Canada: COVID-19 medical masks and respirators: Overview
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Coronavirus Face Masks & Protection FAQs
- University of California San Francisco: Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus
- Loma Linda University Health: Which type of face mask is most effective against COVID-19?
Myth #2: Face Masks Greatly Reduce Oxygen Supply
While proper design can go a long way toward making a face mask more comfortable to wear, we can appreciate that not wearing a mask is almost always going to be the most comfortable option.
That said, one of the most common reasons people mention online for not wearing masks is difficulty breathing and the risk of reduced oxygen supply.
Simply put (for the majority of people), that isn’t a concern.
In fact, ASTM-rated medical masks are tested for breathability as part of the process to ensure they are safe and as comfortable as possible to use.
Just look at mask-wearing trends in Eastern Asia. Many of these countries have worn masks for various reasons for decades, to the point that it’s become a part of their culture.
Will heat and humidity possibly build up under the mask? Sure.
Most media coverage involving mask-wearing incidents have involved N95 masks. But even then, unless you’re wearing an N95 mask with an excellent fit for days at a time or have an underlying respiratory condition, the chances of hypoxemia and other concerns are nearly non-existent.
Of course, you should always exercise caution — especially if you have an existing respiratory condition.
If you suspect your mask is causing breathing issues, consulting with a doctor or other medical professional is the best way to determine if you should use a mask-alternative (such as a face shield.)
If you’re curious about how a mask impacts your blood oxygen levels, fingertip pulse oximeters are an affordable, accessible way to monitor blood oxygen levels at home. Better still, you can find them at most major online retailers if you’re looking to avoid a trip out.
For more information on mask usage and respiratory concerns, consult the following resources:
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: Do Masks Cause Lower Oxygen Levels?
- The American Lung Association: From the Frontlines: The Truth About Masks and COVID-19
- Health: Does Wearing a Face Mask Reduce Oxygen—and Can It Increase CO2 Levels? Here’s What Experts Say
- Reuters: Breathing With Face Mask Does Not Alter Oxygen Level; Virus Can Last Nine Hours On Skin
- DigitalMedic at Stanford University: Myth: Face Masks Can Reduce Oxygen Getting To The Lungs And Bloodstream
- Mental Floss: No, Your Coronavirus Face Mask Does Not Limit Your Oxygen Intake
Myth #3: Leaving Your Nose Out of Your Mask is Okay
Even when people wear a mask, it’s common to see them worn the wrong way.
Masks are designed to function in a specific way. When you don’t use them according to recommended instructions, you negate a considerable portion of the protective benefits.
One of the most common ways we see single-use and cloth face masks worn improperly is by wearing them under your nose. Sure, this helps get rid of any heat build-up and won’t fog up your glasses, but it also leaves your nasal passages wide open for viral attack and means you’ll spread germs everywhere should you sneeze.
This is particularly important as early studies have found evidence that nasal passages are a major component in the defence against COVID-19 and one of the core infection vectors when defences fail.
For more information on the importance of covering your nose when wearing a single-use or cloth face mask, consult the following:
- Men’s Health: Your Nose Is a Coronavirus Magnet. Wear Your Mask Properly.
- WebMD: Why Is It Important to Cover Your Nose With a Mask?
- Forbes: 8 Face Mask Wearing Mistakes People Are Making With Covid-19 Coronavirus
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Researchers Map How Coronavirus Infection Travels Through Cells Of Nasal Cavity And Respiratory Tract
Myth #4: You Need an N95 Mask
Personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages were a serious issue at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, N95 masks were hard to come by as healthcare professionals tapped into emergency stockpiles. Simultaneously, the public amassed large PPE collections as uncertainty around the availability of supplies and the pandemic’s impact loomed large.
However, for most, an N95 mask is not needed. Getting the most out of N95 masks requires fitting and sizing that most people likely won’t consider. Even if you’re willing to deal with the increased heat, discomfort, and cost of an N95 mask, you still might not see increased protection if worn improperly.
This means that N95 masks are best left to medical professionals and other high-risk individuals (either in terms of health or occupation.)
If you insist on wearing an N95 mask anyway, be sure to opt for a model without a valve. While they might make breathing more comfortable, they also expel streams of viral matter into your surroundings. As such, they do little to protect those around you. If you want easier breathing and comfort and don’t require an N95 mask’s added filtration, opt for a well-made cloth or non-woven mask instead.
For more information on the appropriate use of N95 masks and who should wear them, consult the following resources:
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, and Face Masks
- Health: Will the N95 Respirator Mask Protect You Against Coronavirus? Here’s What an Expert Says
- STAT: Without training, N95 masks may not protect workers on the Covid-19 frontlines
- Medpage Today: Use N95 Masks for All COVID-19 Inpatient Care. Period.
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Why N95 Should Be the Standard for All COVID-19 Inpatient Care
- World Health Organization (WHO): Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Advice For The Public: When And How To Use Masks
- Healthline: Can Face Masks Protect You from the 2019 Coronavirus? What Types, When and How to Use
Myth #5: It’s Okay to Wear Your Mask Loosely When Not In Use
You’ve probably seen someone in their car, on the street, or in a store with their mask around their chin, on their forehead, or even dangling off one ear.
While that’s convenient for ensuring your mask is right there when you need it, it’s not a good idea. It might compromise the protective abilities of your mask and increase your infection risk.
Issues created by wearing your mask on your chin, forehead, or off one ear include but are not limited to:
- Structural damage to the mask, reducing overall filtration and containment ability
- Moistening or soiling of the mask, impacting filtration and containment
- Collection of airborne or environmental pathogens on the mask, which you then move toward your face when you put it on again
- Forgetting to put the mask back on when encountering others
- Loss of the mask due to movement, wind, or other factors
- Increased frequency of touching high-risk facial areas to put on and remove the mask repeatedly
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re in a situation where it’s safe to pull your mask up or down, simply remove it. If you can’t leave it off long enough to justify removing it completely, just leave it on.
For more information about the risks of improper mask placement when not in use, consult the following:
- Prevention: The CDC Is Reminding People That Face Masks Shouldn’t Be Worn Below the Chin
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How to Wear Masks
- Hackensack Meridian Health: 5 Mask Mistakes People Make
- The New York Times: How NOT to Wear a Mask
- MarketWatch: This Is The Biggest Mistake People Make While Wearing A Face Mask
- Edward-Elmhurst Health: Dos And Don’ts Of Wearing Face Masks In Public
- Discover Magazine: Why Wearing a Face Mask Halfway Can Be Dangerous
Myth #6: You Don’t Need to Wear a Mask When Distancing or Outside with Others
Masks are just a single aspect of the recommended approaches to reduce COVID transmission and protect yourself and those around you from infection.
At the start of the pandemic, indoor gatherings were considered a substantial risk. While exact regulations vary by region, many people have shifted to outdoor versions of events — including dining, concerts, family gatherings, exercise, and more.
Air circulation and open spaces are great for reducing viral concentrations and providing a level of protection you wouldn’t find indoors, but that doesn’t make them completely safe. Much like wearing masks, outdoor interaction and distancing aren’t guaranteed protections but help to minimize risk.
As such, even when outdoors or distancing, masks are still recommended. If you are alone — for example hiking in a remote or sparsely populated area — feel free to take off your mask and enjoy the outdoor air. But be sure to keep a clean mask available for rapid donning should you encounter anyone unexpected.
For more information about wearing masks while distancing or outdoors, consult the following:
- CBC: How Close Can You Get With Masks On? Your Mask Questions Answered
- Time: Wearing Face Masks and Social Distancing Actually Work to Contain COVID-19, According to a New Study
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Social Distancing: Keep a Safe Distance to Slow the Spread
- HuffPost: No, Face Masks Do Not Replace Social Distancing. Here’s Why.
- PopSugar: A Doctor Explains Why You Should Social Distance Even While Wearing a Face Mask
- Masks are a critical part of controlling the spread of COVID-19.
- While they can help to avoid exposure, a large part of mask benefits is about containment.
- Proper coverage is critical — cover your chin and nose fully with a firm fit against the skin when possible.
- Leave N95 masks for medical personnel and high-risk environments/individuals.
- Most masks do not impact blood oxygen levels and minimally impede breathing.
- Never wear your mask on your forehead, under your chin, or off one ear. Either mask on or mask off.
- Wearing a mask still offers benefits when congregating outdoors or observing social distancing.
PRIMED is a leading provider of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals on the frontline of the fight against COVID in Canada and North America. As a designer, manufacturer, and supplier of PPE, our decades of experience related to virtually every aspect of medical mask creation, fit, and implementation puts us in a unique position to help consumers and healthcare workers alike during this trying time. We hope this information can help to add safety and security to your routines.