With the rapid spread of COVID-19, mask-wearing has become a worldwide necessity. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention endorses face masks in the fight against the spread of the virus, but some people worry if daily use impacts their health.
Will masks give you trouble breathing, increase carbon dioxide, or be a threat for those with medical conditions?
The short answer: the benefits far outweigh any risks for almost everyone.
The coronavirus provides more than enough stress, so if your face covering is giving you concern, we are here to put your mind at ease and break down what science says about the dangers and health risks of masks.
This article talks you through the following:
- Face masks and their benefits
- Can face masks cause health conditions?
- What health conditions do face masks cause?
- Does prolonged face mask wearing cause more harm?
- How a face mask protects you from COVID-19
Face Masks and Their Benefits
The general public didn’t need or use masks before the COVID-19 epidemic. Masks to prevent infectious disease, in particular, were mostly worn by healthcare workers in medical settings.
But, COVID-19 changed what we know as normal.
In addition to physical distancing, masks became necessary even for healthy people because of the disease’s airborne nature.
While some sort of face-covering is better than nothing, there is a big difference between things that cover your mouth and nose — like cloth face coverings or a face shield — and those that are designed to prevent the spread of diseases.
The most effective and most recommended choice of face mask for protection against COVID-19 is the respirator face mask, which is certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A respirator (without a valve) provides two-way protection, keeping both the wearer and those around them safe from COVID-19.
The mask reduces the wearer’s exposure to airborne particles like small particle aerosols and large droplets, such as bodily fluids. It can filter tiny particles, such as viral particles, up to 95 percent.
Respirators include names such as N95, KN95, FFP1, FFp2, and FFP3.
If a respirator mask isn’t available, the next best option is a 3-ply face mask, commonly known as a medical or surgical mask.
3-ply face masks protect those that come in contact with the wearer from the wearer’s respiratory emissions. But, 3ply masks are not great at filtering out tiny viral particles and therefore don’t protect the wearer.
Then, of course, there are washable cloth face masks.
Cloth face masks provide the least protection for the wearer and those around them.
Wearing a washable cloth face mask reduces the spread of viruses, bacteria, and germs, but there are no regulations in place for washable cloth masks.
Cloth masks are currently unproven and untested in standing up to viruses like the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Wearing a washable cloth mask is the very minimum every person should be wearing in public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can Face Masks Cause Health Conditions?
In general, face masks are safe and do not cause health issues. Wearing any face mask over a prolonged period of time, from a respirator face mask to a washable cloth face mask, has not been shown to create new health problems or conditions.
It’s important to remember that masks are commonplace for people working in or visiting an indoor public space in many countries worldwide. Retail workers, hairdressers, receptionists, and so many others now have to wear a face mask throughout the entirety of their workday, including during public transportation.
Many cultures worldwide have made it common practice to wear face masks when sick or during times of high pollution.
If you don’t have a pre-existing health condition, wearing any form of these face masks will not impede your ability to inhale oxygen and breathe.
A small handful of people are advised to consult their physician before wearing a face mask. They include:
- Any person that has difficulty breathing.
- Any person who is not capable of removing a mask without assistance.
- Any person with a pre-existing health condition that makes it difficult to breathe, like chronic lung disease or severe asthma.
- And of course, children under the age of two should not wear face masks.
What Health Conditions Do Face Masks Cause?
Face mask-wearing does not cause health conditions. However, some people might experience minor skin irritation.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, skin outbreaks that result from mask-wearing have become known as “mascne.” But, even those issues are preventable.
Frequently, skin irritation results when you don’t wash your cloth mask often enough or if the detergent or soap you use irritates your face.
After multiple wears, face masks will eventually build up pollen, sweat, makeup, skin products, exhaust fumes, and other particles in the air. Exposure can lead to skin irritation, rashes, allergic reactions, and skin outbreaks. It is recommended that you wash reusable masks regularly.
The respirators, such as N95 masks, are not designed for washing and reuse.
Does Prolonged Face Mask Wearing Cause More Harm Than Good? No.
Wearing masks protect public health without risking individual health. There have been no reports that prolonged face mask-wearing causes more harm to those without pre-existing health conditions.
How A Face Mask Protects You From COVID-19
Face masks are recommended by scientists because when you breathe, cough, sneeze, or even talk, small particles you emit can spread the coronavirus.
If you wear a face mask, it provides a barrier that can capture some of those droplets and reduce the likelihood of spread.
The best face masks, such as respirator face masks (which are rated according to their particle filtration efficiency), cannot only trap these particles and stop them from being emitted into the air but also filter the air you breathe in, protecting you from COVID-19.
In this way, the face masks effectively reduce the spread of COVID-19 and overall viral transmission.
While face masks provide a physical barrier against the spread of COVID-19 viral particles, it is essential to continue to practice other methods that limit the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing and regular hand-washing.
For more information on what items and materials can be worn as an effective face mask, read our previous blog post: What Can Be Used As A Face Mask.
Cover photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.