Can a Face Mask Protect Me?

The sales of face masks have skyrocketed due to recent current events and individuals wanting to do everything they can to protect themselves from airborne diseases. Face masks are a type of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that can be an effective way to decrease the spread of germs from person to person. The question then arises, does any face mask protect you?  Any type of face mask can be used as a barrier between you and someone else who might be sick, but not all face masks are effective in protecting yourself from airborne illnesses.  

There are two different types of face masks that people can use as a type of personal protection equipment, or PPE.  A face mask, or surgical mask, is designed to fit loosely over the nose and mouth and are held by a string that attaches from behind the ears. These types of face masks were designed to be worn by doctors and surgeons to prevent their coughs and sneezes from contaminating the room where they are working or operating in. They are not airtight. They do not filter small airborne bacteria. Respirators are the other type of mask that falls under an approved PPE, or personal protective equipment, for face protection. These types of masks fit very snugly around the nose and mouth and are sized to the wearer. Respirators are designed to filter up to 95 percent of all airborne particles and bacteria.  Respirators have special specifications that must be met to be approved as a reliable source of protection from airborne bacterial and viral diseases.  

A face mask, or surgical mask, can be purchased by the public and can be found at local drug stores, pharmacies and online. The respirator masks are worn by medical persons and some first responders. These employees usually work at a hospital and are handling patients that have or have been in contact with very infectious diseases or working in a contaminated area that requires complete body substance isolation, or BSI.  A respirator cannot be easily purchased as they are custom fitted to the user.  

Can a simple surgical mask protect you? As long as you wear it correctly, it can certainly provide a layer of protection. The problems arise when the loosely fitted face mask requires constant adjustment. You are not supposed to touch your face so that you don’t spread germs. Touching the mask and constantly readjusting it is making you actually touch your face more often. The mask can also become moist and sweaty from you breathing into it. The moisture can create an opportunity for bacteria to grow, possibly making you sick. Surgical masks are meant to be discarded after each use. If you are reusing your face mask, you could be harvesting bacteria and increasing the amount of germs you put against your face. 

For many people, wearing the mask serves as a reminder to be mindful of germs and mindful of the possibility of spreading germs to each other upon close contact.  If you feel safer wearing a mask, wear it. You can also use a bandana, or create a mask out of a cotton T-shirt or pillowcase at home. Remember that do-it-yourself masks are not for health care workers or first responders because they can allow droplets to seep through the mask. However, they can be used when you are required to run essential errands or for a trip to the grocery store. These masks should be washed after each use or disposed of to keep you healthy along with proper and frequent hand washing.

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