Masks protect everyone from the coronavirus — including you

The practice of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has become an incredibly sensitive topic. While some state and local authorities mandate it, others don’t. Couple that with the fact that early advice about mask-wearing stressed the importance of wearing one to protect others, and people are incredibly confused.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released updated its “considerations for wearing a face mask” and doubled down on its recommendations that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when they’re around people outside of their home, especially when it’s hard to maintain social distancing.

“Cloth face coverings are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. This is called source control,” the CDC says. “This recommendation is based on what we know about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, paired with emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that shows cloth face coverings reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth.”

To be sure, masks are recommended primarily to prevent the wearer from spreading the infection. But emerging evidence has shown it can help offer some protection for those wearing it too. There are some simple memes (remember the urine test one?) and tweets breaking down the reasoning, and experts say there’s something to them.

Here’s what you need to know about how well masks can protect you, the wearer, against getting COVID-19.

What does the data say?

One experiment published in the New England Journal of Medicine used high-speed video and found that hundreds of droplets were generated when someone said a phrase, but almost all of the droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a washcloth. Epidemiological studies have also strongly suggested that masks help keep people safe too. One study published in the journal Health Affairs analyzed the spread of COVID-19 before and after masks were required in 15 states and Washington, D.C. The study found that there was a slowdown in the spread of the virus in areas where masks were required, and the slower spread became more obvious over time.

And in May, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in Missouri revealed that, while two hairstylists worked on 140 clients when they were sick with COVID-19, everyone wore masks and none of those clients tested positive for the virus. “This is exciting news about the value of masking to prevent COVID-19,” said Clay Goddard, director of health, in a press release at the time.

Wearing a face covering offers some protection from COVID-19, experts say. (Getty Images)
Wearing a face covering offers some protection from COVID-19, experts say. (Getty Images)

Masks aren’t perfect at protecting you, but experts say they’re better than nothing.

It’s important to acknowledge that cloth face masks aren’t as effective as medical-grade masks like N95 respirators at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Medical masks can filter out up to 95 percent of aerosolized particles, while cloth face masks can only filter out up to 60 percent of those particles, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

Still, it’s something, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “And we need to do something,” he says. He’s seen the urine test, and while he considers it a “very vivid analogy,” Schaffner says it’s a good example of how “something is better than nothing” when it comes to masks.

Along with social distancing, masks are “one of the most important tools” in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Suzanne Willard, a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing, tells Yahoo Life. “The virus is transmitted through close contact,” she says. “The more the distance, the better. And, if not, a barrier is needed.” 

There’s also this to consider: “There are no downsides to mask use,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. He acknowledges that some people are concerned about breathing in the carbon dioxide they exhale, but he says there’s nothing to suggest that’s an issue. “This makes no sense, since surgeons have been doing this for over 100 years,” he points out.

The peer pressure element is also an important, albeit indirect, way of protecting yourself. The more people in a community wear masks, the more likely others are to do the same — and that can lower everyone’s risk of contracting COVID-19, Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. One simulation conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of London, among other universities, found that if 80 percent of a population wore masks, it could reduce the spread of the virus even more than lockdown.

“The best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to do whatever we can to limit the prevalence of COVID in the community. The more COVID in my community, the higher my risk is,” Gonsenhauser says. “The more I wear a mask, the more other people are likely to do it too — and then my risk goes down.”  

What should you look for in a mask?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released guidelines on what to look for in a cloth face mask. The organization specifically recommends wearing a mask with three layers, including an inner layer of an absorbent material, like cotton, a middle layer made of nonwoven material like polypropylene to serve as a filter or barrier, and an outer layer made of a nonabsorbent material like polyester.

It’s also important to use them properly. “People have to make sure they’re wearing them properly, not touching their face and not discarding them on sidewalks,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “Masks shouldn’t give people a false sense of security.”

But again, Schaffner stresses that anything is better than nothing. “One hundred percent of people should leave their homes with some sort of face covering, whether it’s a formal mask, bandana, shawl or something,” Schaffner says. “We all need to get together to protect not only ourselves, but everybody else.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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