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Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments. 

Updated November 23, 2020

The global pandemic COVID-19 has caused millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide.

The disease, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, spreads through respiratory droplets. When people who are infected cough, sneeze, talk, or raise their voice, it releases droplets. Those droplets can then be absorbed by someone nearby, potentially infecting that person.

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people wear facemasks in public places. Pennsylvania currently requires people 2 years old and above to wear facemasks when in public and interacting with people outside of their household.

There are many misconceptions about wearing masks. Based on current knowledge about COVID-19, here are some of the common facemask myths and facts.

Who Should Wear a Facemask?

Myth: I don’t need to wear a facemask unless I feel sick.

Fact: You should wear a facemask even if you don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Evidence shows that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people can spread COVID-19 to others, according to the CDC. Wearing a facemask in public, especially when you can’t consistently maintain social distancing, can help prevent you from unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to others.

Can Facemasks Help Against COVID-19?

Myth: Facemasks are not effective against disease.

Fact: Facemasks can be an important preventive factor.

While facemasks alone can’t prevent COVID-19, they are a key factor in prevention. If you wear a facemask, it can help prevent you from spreading the disease to others. If others wear a facemask, it can help to prevent them from spreading COVID-19 to you.

Other important prevention tactics include:

  • Maintaining 6 feet of social distancing in public from people who aren’t members of your household
  • Maintaining good hand hygiene — washing your hands frequently with soap and water, or a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol
  • Regularly cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, light switches, cell phones, and more
  • Avoiding people who are sick

If you follow these prevention methods, it can help limit your risk of COVID-19.

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Are Facemasks Dangerous?

Myth: Facemasks can cause harm to my health.

Fact: Facemasks do not cause harm.

A widely circulating rumor that facemasks can be harmful because they cause the wearer to re-breathe unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide is untrue.

The carbon dioxide molecules that are released when you exhale are tiny — smaller than the coronavirus particles that your facemask is designed to stop. The carbon dioxide particles will safely escape, allowing you to breathe.

It is important to wear a covering that allows you to consistently breathe while still staying secure to your face.

When Should I Wear a Facemask?

Myth: Facemasks are only necessary in crowded places.

Fact: You should wear a facemask in all public places if you can’t maintain social distancing.

Pennsylvania currently requires all people to wear masks when out in public. Masks are mandatory in indoor public places, when visiting people outside of our household, and in outdoor public places if you can’t consistently maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

According to the CDC, facemasks are most likely to reduce COVID-19 spread if they are widely used in public places. It can be difficult to consistently keep 6 feet of social distancing in public places, which makes wearing a mask important as an added preventive factor.

What Kind of Mask Should I Wear?

Myth: I should wear a surgical facemask or N95 respirator.

Fact: If possible, members of the general public should wear a cloth face covering.

To preserve supplies of surgical facemasks and N95 respirators for health care workers and first responders, members of the general public should wear cloth face coverings. Cloth face coverings can be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19, while also keeping surgical masks or N95s in supply for people who need them. You can buy a cloth face covering or make one yourself.

Do Surgical Masks Protect You?

Myth: Surgical masks don’t protect you from infection — they protect others from being infected by you.

Fact: Surgical masks do protect the wearer from infection.

Health care workers wear surgical masks to protect against many infections. That includes COVID-19. Members of the general public should continue to use cloth face coverings to preserve the supply of surgical masks for health care workers and first responders.

Can I Wear a Face Shield Instead of a Facemask?

Myth: A face shield can be used as a substitute for a facemask.

Fact: A face shield is not a recommended substitute for a facemask.

The CDC does not currently recommend the use of face shields for everyday activities or as a substitute for a facemask. The effectiveness of face shields at protecting other people from airborne particles is unknown, the CDC says.

If you do wear a face shield without a mask, the shield should wrap around the sides of your face and extend to below your chin. Disposable face shields should be worn only once. Reusable shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.

Face shields should not be used as a substitute in health care settings. Newborns and infants should not wear a face shield.

How Should Facemasks Be Worn?

Myth: Facemasks should be loose-fitting.

Fact: Facemasks should fit snugly.

In order for a facemask to be most effective, it should have a snug fit while still allowing you to breathe. Most cloth face coverings secure either with ties or ear loops. Facemasks should cover your nose and mouth completely, with the bottom secured below your chin.

Should I Wash My Facemask?

Myth: You don’t need to wash your facemask.

Fact: You should wash your facemask after each use.

The CDC recommends washing your facemask after each time you wear it in public. You can either use a washing machine with laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting, or wash the mask by hand with water and a bleach solution. After washing, the mask should be dried completely either in the dryer or by air-drying. See the CDC for full guidelines.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Cloth Face Coverings. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How to Wash Cloth Face Coverings. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html

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