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Explaining the Benefits of Face Masks and How They Help in the Fight Against COVID-19

Written by Babylon Team

, 8 min read

Explaining the Benefits of Face Masks and How They Help in the Fight Against COVID-19

In the midst of our current COVID-19 pandemic, being a mask wearer is one of the most important things you can do to slow the spread and take some of the pressure off of our hard-pressed healthcare workers. But why? We're here to give you all the details on how masks slow the spread of COVID-19 and answer FAQs.

What does a face mask do and why should you wear one?

SARS-CoV-2, most commonly known as COVID-19, is a coronavirus. Like many infectious diseases, it can be spread by respiratory droplets in the air (also called aerosols). These are the small particles that come from your mouth and nose when you sneeze, cough, speak, shout, sing, and breathe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is most commonly spread between people who are within close contact (6 feet) with each other. That's why social distancing and widespread mask use are so important for slowing the spread of COVID-19.

So what do face masks do? When you go out wearing a mask, the layers of fabric act as a filter to keep most of those aerosols from reaching those around you. Masks that cover your mouth and nose prevent droplets from traveling as far so fewer of them reach other people or the surfaces around you to infect others.

How do face masks help against coronavirus if you aren't showing any symptoms? Asymptomatic people can still have and spread COVID-19. Wearing a mask in public places prevents the spread of droplets. Fewer people get sick, and more room is freed up in hospitals for those who do contract COVID-19. Are face masks effective? Yes.

Face coverings have been used in healthcare settings for decades to prevent the transfer of droplets, splashes and sprays. Slowing the spread of the virus works on a similar principle. The use of masks keeps a large portion of the small particles you expel from reaching the world around you. So the answer to "do face masks really work?" is yes! We wear masks to slow the spread by preventing the spread of particles that may contain COVID-19.

How effective your face mask is depends on what it's made of. Fabric masks should have more than one layer and be made of a tightly woven, breathable fabric like cotton. All masks should fit snugly, but should not slide off your chin or nose when you talk.

How to wear a mask

  • Wash your hands before you put your mask on, after taking it off, and after touching your mask.
  • Tie or secure your mask around your ears or behind your head. Make sure the fit is snug, not so tight or loose that there are gaps around the sides. Ensure that your breathing is not restricted.
  • Make sure the mask covers your mouth, nose, and chin.
  • Don't touch your mask while wearing it. Adjust or remove your mask using the ear loops when possible, rather than the front of the mask. Wash your hands after touching your mask.

Type of maskRecommended for COVID-19?Who should use this mask
N95 masks and other respiratorsNot for the general public; should be conserved for healthcare personnelHealthcare workers who are treating patients with COVID-19 only
Medical or surgical masksYes, in some cases
  • Healthcare workers in clinical settings
  • First responders
  • Anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms
  • Anyone exposed to COVID-19 and awaiting test results, or who has tested positive
  • Anyone outside of health facilities who is caring for an individual suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19
  • People over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions
Reusable cloth masksYesThis is the best mask option for the general public
Disposable, non-medical masksYes
  • People without reliable access to facilities to wash their mask
  • People whose mask may get wet or dirty, or as a backup mask
FDA-approved clear face mask or face mask with clear panelYes, in some cases

Anyone interacting with:

  • people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • those with audio processing disorders who use mouth movements to understand speech
  • people who are speaking a non-native language
Bandanas, gaiters, and other on-hand substitutesOnly in rare casesAnyone who has no other mask options on hand, as these substitutes are not as effective as masks
Masks with exhalation valvesNoThis mask type is not recommended, as it may not prevent the spread of COVID-19
Masks with only one layerNoThis mask type is not recommended, as it may not prevent the spread of COVID-19

Picking the best masks for COVID-19 protection

With that in mind, we can offer advice on picking the appropriate mask for coronavirus. There are many different types of masks for COVID-19 available, but several should be left as personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, such as n95 respirators, due to short supply.

A cloth face mask with a filter pocket or single-use, non-medical masks are the best options for the average person in public settings.

How to make a face mask at home

If you need another mask or a new mask, you can make your own face mask at home. Cloth face coverings are all over, with plenty of tutorials on how to make a mask out of a t-shirt. So how do you make a face mask?

  • Choose a tightly woven, breathable fabric, such as cotton. Your fabric shouldn't let light through when held up to a light source.
  • The best homemade face masks should be made of at least three layers of fabric.
  • Make sure your mask fits snugly, without gaps, and is big enough to cover your mouth, nose, and chin.

See the CDC's more detailed instructions for how to make a sewn or no-sew mask.

How to wash cloth masks

  • Wash your mask every day, or after getting it dirty.
  • Most fabric masks can be put in the normal wash with your other laundry. Wash with laundry detergent, according to the fabric type. (Pro tip - if you have a mesh zipper bag for your wash, use that to avoid tangling, just make sure the mask has room to move around.)
  • If you're washing by hand, wash your mask with tap water and laundry soap or detergent, rinsing thoroughly with clean water.
  • Dry your mask completely in a warm or hot dryer, according to the fabric type. Air dry by hanging in direct sunlight or hanging or laying flat until completely dry.

Fixing common mask issues

Glasses misting: Make sure your mask fits snugly and high up over your nose, with your glasses on top of it. A wire bridge can help keep a close fit and prevent air coming back. Washing the lenses with soapy water and air drying or wiping with a soft cloth can also help prevent fog. 3D printed nose clips can also help.

Exercising: Masks should only be worn during light physical activity, due to the risk of restricted breathing. The best athletic face mask will be breathable while still tightly woven. Keep an extra mask along to replace one you've sweat in. If you're planning on a vigorous workout, exercise outdoors and at least 6 feet away from others to give yourself a mask break.

Getting a comfortable, snug fit: Getting a snug fit can sometimes be difficult, depending on face shape and available masks. Search for fitted face masks, masks with adjustable straps, or a face mask earloop adjuster to get a fit without gaps. If you're trying to get your beard and mask to cooperate, consider trimming your beard or switching up your style.

What to do if you have a cough: An important question that usually only occurs at the last second: how to use a face mask when you have a cough? The best plan is to cough or sneeze outside, with enough ventilation that you can remove your mask. If you can't head outside, keep spare masks for when yours gets dirty.

Frequently asked questions

Who should be wearing a mask?

Everyone over the age of 2 years old who can wear a mask without restricting their breathing should be wearing a mask while in public or around people who are not members of their household.

Can you wear a face shield instead of a mask?

No. Face shields are not as effective as masks. The CDC does not recommend using face shields as a substitute for a face covering due to the large gaps on the sides and underneath that can allow particles to escape. If you are for some reason unable to wear a mask, choose a face shield that extends below the chin and around the sides of the head for maximum protection.

When should I wear a face mask?

You should wear a face mask whenever you are around people who are not members of your household (including in your home, if people are visiting). Pack a spare travel face mask in your car or bag, so you are never without.

Can you get COVID-19 if you wear a mask?

Masks that cover your nose and mouth can help reduce the spread, but they are not airtight. You can still get COVID-19 while wearing a mask, but your chances are lower.

In winter, can I use a scarf to cover my mouth and nose?

You should still wear a mask that meets the above listed requirements. You can cover your mask with a scarf for extra warmth, as long as it doesn’t make it hard to breathe.

How often should you wash your fabric mask?

Daily or whenever they get dirty.

How long do face masks last?

Disposable face masks are single-use and should be thrown away after wearing. With frequent washing, cloth masks can last until they wear through or have a rip or hole that allows particles through.

Where can I buy face masks?

By now, many major retailers, convenience stores, and pharmacies are selling cloth masks. You can also find handmade masks online or make your own.


Frequently Asked Questions - CDC

Use of Masks to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19 - CDC

Considerations for Wearing Masks - CDC

How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask - CDC

How to Store and Wash Masks - CDC

COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? - Mayo Clinic

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks - WHO

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Masks - WHO

A Comprehensive Guide to Face Masks - Cleveland Clinic

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.

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