Whenever there is video footage or images of people walking around a city during an outbreak of an illness, they all seem to be wearing face masks. This has led to many people buying face masks in mass quantities. This begs the question: Do they really protect you?

The masks that you typically see are surgical masks. These masks are designed to protect patients from the mouth-borne germs in a surgeon’s mouth. They don’t work against preventing the person wearing the mask from catching a disease that is usually inhaled, as is the case with the new coronavirus. This is the result of the mask being made of flexible material that doesn’t create a fitted seal around the face, so there are spaces and gaps that make it easy for air to move in and out. For individuals who aren’t sick, even if they’re wearing the mask correctly, they aren’t protected from the new coronavirus. Individuals that would benefit from wearing the surgical masks are those that already are infected in order to prevent spreading the virus to others. While a mask would be helpful in preventing the spread, the best way to not spread the virus is to self-isolate (see our Social Distancing article) and practice proper handwashing techniques (see our Handwashing article).

There is another type of mask that is more protective than surgical masks. These are called the N95 respirators. This mask is more effective because it’s more form fitting, which is the key to making them effective at preventing germs from getting around them. Due to how snuggly the mask fits, most people, who are non-medical personnel, are unlikely to wear them correctly or for long periods of time.

One other feature that masks can help protect against is touching your face. This is essential because if you touch something that an infected person has touched and then touch your face, you’re more likely to get the virus than if you didn’t touch your face. When you’re wearing a mask, it stops direct contact of your hands to your nose and mouth. However, there are other ways to prevent you from doing this, such as keeping tissues nearby in order to use them to rub your nose or adjust your glasses rather than your hands directly. Also, if you need to sneeze, but don’t have a tissue, use your elbow instead of your hands. It’s important to be aware of anything that causes you to touch your face, such as frequently adjusting your hair or rubbing your eyes if they’re dry. Once you figure out what your triggers are, do what you can to avoid doing these behaviors. One way to accomplish this is to keep your hands busy. You can do this by using a stress ball or putting scented lotion on your hands so that you smell it every time your hand comes near your face.