Face masks alone aren’t a good way to keep from getting sick

Whether it be coronavirus or the flu, there are better ways.

two men walking wearing surgical masks
Mask-wearing is more common in some parts of Asia for a variety of cultural reasonsMacau Photo Agency

No one wants to get sick. During pandemics—or even just normal flu season—that desire to avoid the ill and infirm shoots up, and we start taking extra precautions. But if you do one thing this winter to keep yourself from catching a virus, don’t let it be wearing a face mask.

It’s not so much that face masks are terrible. In theory, they could work to prevent sprays of virus-laden fluid from entering your nose and mouth. But in practice, neither the standard surgical variety nor the heavier duty N95 respirator masks do much to keep bugs from spreading person-to-person. Even in hospital settings, the few studies on the topic find that the N95 respirators weren’t any better than the common surgical ones at preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses.

There haven’t been many more studies about how well masks work at all, but a 2011 review suggests they might offer some protection, sometimes, in certain circumstances. The closer your contact with an infected person, the more likely it is to work as a physical barrier, for instance. They don’t even seem to work that well in operating rooms, where they originated.

Part of the problem is likely that the air can simply get around the barrier, but public health experts say perhaps the biggest reason face masks are ineffective is that breathing air with viral droplets simply isn’t how you get sick most of the time.

Certainly some viruses travel well through the air in aerosolized droplets, but you’d need to be in close proximity of a sick person sneezing or coughing for that to happen. On the other hand, you shake hands with a sick person or touch things that a sick person has recently touched quite often, even without realizing it. You also touch your face roughly 52 times every day, and every time you do you carry infectious agents from whatever you just touched to the region around your nose and mouth. From there, those bacteria or viruses can get into your mucous membranes and cause disease.

It’s for this reason that the World Health Organization doesn’t suggest using surgical masks alone as a method of prevention. When used in conjunction with frequent hand-washing—the gold standard of disease prevention—they can be effective. But alone, they won’t do much.

The one circumstance in which you should consider it is when you’re ill and need to go somewhere in public, like a doctor’s office or a hospital. Surgical masks do help reduce the number of viral particles released into the air by a sick person.

If you do still want to use one for prevention, at least make sure you’re doing it properly. Buy disposable masks, not cloth ones—the warm moist environment near your mouth makes it likely that a more permanent mask will harbor bacteria and viruses, thus actually increasing your chances of getting sick. You’ll need to wear the mask all the time, since you never know when you might be around an ill person, and you’ll have to make sure you don’t touch your face more to adjust the mask—that would be wildly counterproductive. And when you go to remove it at the end of the day, make sure not to touch the front. Remove it by the ear straps. Otherwise you’re just transmitting everything the mask has been filtering out all day onto your hands, which will likely touch your face several times in the next hour. Again—counterproductive.

By far your best bet to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands frequently. It’s the last thing many of us want to do when our skin is already parched and cracking, but prevention is the best medicine. Get thee a solid hand cream and wash those digits.