Wearing Masks: Fact vs. Fiction

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Wearing a mask has become part of our daily routine. Unfortunately, myths about this important safety measure have become common, too.

Dr. Linda Yancey, MD, infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital helps us sort fact from fiction.

One. A mask is all you need.
FALSE: “Masks are the single most important intervention to prevent spreading of this disease,” she says. “But mask usage is not a substitute for social distancing. It’s an addition.”

COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets produced in your nose and mouth when you talk, cough or sneeze. When you’re wearing a mask, the fabric or paper catches them, preventing them from spreading. It also prevents you from inhaling other people’s droplets.

Two. Masks weren't needed in March so they're not needed now.
FALSE: “This is a novel virus,” Dr. Yancey says. “Early recommendations were based on extremely limited knowledge. The great thing about science is it doesn’t stop learning. We know so much now about the virus that we didn’t know early on.”

Three. Masks limit oxygen.
FALSE: Cloth and paper masks don’t stop you from getting oxygen. They also don’t trap in carbon dioxide. Even custom-fit N95s enable you to breathe in oxygen fully. “Masks are designed to be worn for long periods of time by surgeons. They are safe and effective,” she says.

Four. Masks must be worn properly to work.
TRUE: To get the most of your mask, put it on by the ear loops, pinch it above the nose, stretch out any folds, cover the chin and make it fit closely to your cheeks.

“A mask is not a necklace. It is not an earring. And don’t be a free-noser,” Dr. Yancey says.

Remove masks by the ear loops to avoid contaminating yourself. Try not to touch the center of your mask. If you do, use hand sanitizer.

Five. Kids do not need to mask up.
FALSE. “Children over age 2 should wear masks—absolutely,” she says. “They’re the most likely to have asymptomatic disease, which means they are contagious without you knowing they’re sick. Happily, they’re also the most likely to be super-excited by a SpongeBob SquarePants mask.”

Six. Wear a mask anytime you leave your house.
TRUE. “The only people you don’t need to wear a mask with are those who are quarantined with you.” If you’re in a car with those same people, you don’t need a mask. But if you’re riding with someone outside your “pod,” you should. “Also roll down the windows.”

Seven. I have asthma so I cannot wear a mask.
FALSE: “The vast majority of people with asthma can wear a mask,” Dr. Yancey says. “If you’re concerned about your asthma, talk with your pulmonologist.”

Also, launder masks with unscented laundry detergent. “Strong-scented detergent might trigger an asthma attack,” she adds.

Eight. You don't need a mask when exercising.
DEPENDS: If you’re inside a gym, you need one. “If you’re on a jogging trail where you pass people regularly, you all should wear masks. And if you’re close enough to converse, you absolutely should wear a mask,” Dr. Yancey says.

If your paper masks get saturated with moisture, switch to synthetic cloth masks—as always, two-ply. Another outdoor alternative are neck gaiters, commonly worn by hunters.

Nine. You should wash cloth masks daily.
TRUE: Wash them in the machine and dry them in your dryer or in the sun. If you don’t have a washing machine, you can soak them for five minutes in a solution of four teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Then rinse under cold water and lay out to dry.”

Be mindful that disinfectant spray and sunlight don’t reach the inner layer or folds. If you have multiple, uncleaned masks, accumulate them in a plastic bag before cleaning them. Then pitch the bag.

“Paper masks worn for a 15-minute errand can be removed carefully and reused that same day, but for no more than 12 hours,” Dr. Yancey says.

Ten. It's too hot for a mask.
FALSE: “Paper masks are exponentially more comfortable and very safe,” Dr. Yancey says. You don’t need added filters. Two-ply masks do the job. “The most comfortable mask is the most effective. A heavy mask you have to take off every 15 minutes is a lot less effective than one you can wear all day.”

Eleven. You can avoid "maskne."
TRUE: Wash your face before and after wearing a mask. If you have areas that chafe or you get bumps on your face, apply lip balm or petroleum jelly. If the problem continues, you probably need to move to a softer, more comfortable mask.

Also, if ear loops are uncomfortable, wear masks that tie on the back of your head.

Twelve. A N95, KN95 and N99 are the same thing–and the safest.
FALSE: N95s work for COVID-19, if they’re custom-fitted to your face. Generally, they’re made in the U.S. with quality control. KN95s most often are made in China and are more likely to be counterfeited, Dr. Yancey says. N99s are overkill—even for hospital workers. “They’re used in heavy industry,” she says.

The information in this article was accurate as of August 10, 2020.

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