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Is it safe to wear a mask?

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Wearing a face mask is both safe and recommended to slow the spread of COVID-19. The United States Centers for Disease Control recommends widespread use of cloth face coverings over surgical masks to prevent spread from people who might have the virus that causes COVID-19 without realizing it. While N95 masks are in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare workers, cloth face coverings should always be worn when interacting with other people in close proximity (including but not limited to grocery shopping, ordering food at a restaurant, interacting with people within 6 feet in outdoor spaces). You should clean your hands before touching the mask, make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth, and ensure the mask fits tightly on your face without leaving exposed spaces. Additionally, you should avoid touching the front of the mask, avoid taking the mask off when talking to other people; only remove the mask by touching the straps; wash your hands after removing the mask; wash the mask in soap and detergent with hot water at least once a day; and avoid sharing masks with others or leaving used masks around other people. While mask wearing is recognized as safe and is advised by the World Health Organization and other leading health advisory groups, there are cases where masks should not be used. For instance, masks are not safe for children under 2 years of age, people who have trouble breathing in general, or individuals who are unconscious or who would be unable to remove the mask without help.  Several cities and states, such as New Orleans and Washington, have mandated the use of face masks to slow the spread of the virus. However, masks alone are not enough. In addition to wearing a mask to help stop the spread of the virus, public health experts encourage social distancing (staying at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others) as well as frequent and thorough hand washing.

This article was published on
February 17, 2021

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What our experts say

Wearing a face mask is both safe and recommended to slow the spread of COVID-19. The United States Centers for Disease Control recommends widespread use of cloth face coverings over surgical masks to prevent spread from people who might have the virus that causes COVID-19 without realizing it. While N95 masks are in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare workers, cloth face coverings should always be worn when interacting with other people in close proximity (including but not limited to grocery shopping, ordering food at a restaurant, interacting with people within 6 feet in outdoor spaces).

You should clean your hands before touching the mask, make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth, and ensure the mask fits tightly on your face without leaving exposed spaces. Additionally, you should avoid touching the front of the mask, avoid taking the mask off when talking to other people; only remove the mask by touching the straps; wash your hands after removing the mask; wash the mask in soap and detergent with hot water at least once a day; and avoid sharing masks with others or leaving used masks around other people. While mask wearing is recognized as safe and is advised by the World Health Organization and other leading health advisory groups, there are cases where masks should not be used. For instance, masks are not safe for children under 2 years of age, people who have trouble breathing in general, or individuals who are unconscious or who would be unable to remove the mask without help. 

Several cities and states, such as New Orleans and Washington, have mandated the use of face masks to slow the spread of the virus. However, masks alone are not enough. In addition to wearing a mask to help stop the spread of the virus, public health experts encourage social distancing (staying at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others) as well as frequent and thorough hand washing.

Context and background

In the early phases of the COVID-19 outbreak, masks were not recommended as a standard measure to prevent the spread of infection. Because critical protective equipment (including masks) was reserved primarily for healthcare workers, many health organizations could not advocate for the use of masks by the general public until the needs of medical teams were met. Additionally, there was a lack of evidence regarding different types of masks needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Early in the outbreak, the new virus had also not been thoroughly investigated by teams focused on respiratory droplets and aerosolized particles with masks. As scientists and medical experts have learned more about the virus and its spread, the use of face masks to prevent illness as a result of COVID-19 has become a routine recommendation in many parts of the world.

Face masks and cloth face coverings, in combination with frequent hand-washing and social distancing measures, have been shown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Face mask safety also includes carefully and safely putting on, wearing, and removing the mask. The mask should cover both the nose and mouth, and it should be snug against the face.  It is important not to touch the outside of mask while it is worn or when it is removed, and hand washing before and after mask removal is recommended.  Finally, according to the World Health Organization, cloth masks should be washed daily.

Resources

  1. COVID-19: How much protection fo face masks offer? (Mayo Clinic)
  2. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Technical Advice for Use of Masks (WHO)
  3. How to wear a non-medical fabric mask safely (WHO)
  4. Community Use Of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment Of State Mandates In The US (Health Affairs)
  5. How to wear a non-medical fabric mask safely (WHO)
  6. The growing scientific evidence for masks to fight Covid-19 (Vox)
  7. CDC calls on Americans to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 spread (U.S. CDC)
  8. Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021 (U.S. CDC)

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