As we continue to find our path forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, we learn more all the time about the best ways to avoid getting sick, lessen the impact of the virus, and protect ourselves and others. One of the biggest trends for fighting COVID-19 has come in the form of mask requirements in stores and public places that are likely to be crowded. But what’s the science around these mask laws? What kind of mask is the safest, and is there any way to prevent dreaded “maskne” breakouts while wearing one? Read on for tips on mask maintenance, skin care, and the reason why face masks are so important to public safety.
The Science Behind Masks
The main reason masks are such a big part of public health at the moment is because of the way COVID-19 spreads from person to person. One thing experts have seen is that infectious droplets transmitted from a sick person through sneezing, coughing, or even just talking, are a bigger cause of coronavirus infection than getting the virus secondhand from touching an infected surface. Infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong told UCSF that these droplets can be especially dangerous because they can come from people who don’t even know they’re sick yet. This is why, he says, even people who seem healthy can do their part to protect others by wearing a face mask when in public. “We can’t tell who’s infected,” Chin-Hong says. “You can’t look in a crowd and say that person should wear a mask. There’s a lot of asymptomatic infection, so everybody has to wear a mask.” He also said that people are often at their most infectious in the days before their symptoms set in, and “speaking is enough to expel virus-carrying droplets.”
There’s already evidence that wearing a mask can help keep those infectious germs from spreading to others, even in moderately crowded spaces. A recent study found that out of 198 countries, ones whose culture and governments encouraged mask-wearing had lower rates of coronavirus deaths. One case report showed that a man with a dry cough who later tested positive for coronavirus wore a mask on his flight from China to Toronto, and none of the 25 passengers seated near him caught the virus. In another case, two hairstylists in Missouri tested positive for coronavirus but none of the 140 clients they had seen while sick tested positive because everyone was wearing masks.
This is why it’s important that the majority of people wear masks when in public: they’re better at keeping your own germs to yourself rather than protecting you from others, meaning that spaces are only safe if everyone wears a mask.
Some have expressed concern that masks will limit the amount of oxygen we can inhale at one time or result in more carbon dioxide inhalation. Luckily, the medical community has been able to dispel a lot of these fears. Last month Dr. Megan Hall posted a video to Facebook where she tested her oxygen levels while wearing four different masks, showing that neither her heart rate nor her oxygen saturation were affected by wearing the masks. In the Washington Post, pulmonary doctor Daniela Lamas wrote about the theories circulating that masks trap carbon dioxide, causing wearers to breathe in dangerous amounts. “The masks we wear in our daily lives, surgical masks or cloth face coverings, are not airtight. Carbon dioxide molecules are small enough to easily pass through. If this myth were reality, doctors and nurses would be collapsing on the job constantly. And yet my colleagues and I have worn surgical masks for hours, without any related health issues.” Dr. Lamas says that masks can even be safe for people with asthma. She says there’s no evidence that face coverings cause harm to people with asthma, and that people with breathing conditions actually have the most to gain from wearing a face covering that offers them protection from a respiratory virus like COVID-19.
Choosing a Mask
There can be a lot of questions about what kind of mask is best, both for safety and comfort. While N95 masks are obviously safer, experts say they’re really only necessary in medical situations. Masks with plastic valves on them are able to protect you from germs but they don’t protect anyone around you from your own droplets, meaning they aren’t the best choice if you’re going to be around people from other households.
In general, experts say either a washable cloth mask or a disposable surgical mask is fine for most circumstances. The surgical ones might protect you a bit more from inhaling droplets, and these tend to be lighter weight if you’re going to be doing a lot of physical activity or dealing with higher temperatures.
If you don’t have an official mask on hand you can also improvise; either a bandana or a t-shirt can make for a fine face covering as long as it’s secured properly. The only concern when using something that isn’t designed to be a mask is making sure it isn’t too loose. The entire point of the mask is to filter the air that you’re breathing, so make sure it fits your face properly before you venture outside.
Caring for Masks (And Yourself)
Just preventing transmission is only part of the picture for health during COVID. As mask wear becomes part of our day-to-day, there are new practices we have to learn to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves. The irritation and bacteria that can come from a mask if not used correctly can cause breakouts, maskne (mask acne) and even face dandruff.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association says that finding a mask that fits your face correctly, covering your nose and mouth without being too tight or too loose, will reduce irritation. A mask that fits correctly will also cut down the chances that you’ll have to adjust it, sparing you from transferring germs from your hands to your face. Taking the mask off whenever there’s nobody around, or at least making sure your face gets air for five minutes an hour, will help your skin to breathe and reduce irritation.
The AADA also recommends washing cloth masks after each use. Not only does this take care of any potential germs left on the mask, but it prevents oils from building up on the cloth and harming your skin. Washing the mask with unscented soap thoroughly so that no residue gets left behind and drying without fabric softener is the gentlest option for your sensitive facial skin.
There are also a few changes to your normal skincare routine that can help prepare your skin more for regular mask use. If you wear makeup, consider skipping foundation to avoid clogging pores. Because the cloth sitting on skin can make it more sensitive, avoid exfoliants, chemical peels, or any other harsh skin treatments you haven’t tried before, as your skin might have a more severe reaction than normal. If you don’t already have a face washing routine Dr. Jaime Davis, a board certified dermatologist in Minnesota, recommends washing your face twice daily with a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil; this can also prevent buildup of dry, dead skin or “face dandruff.”
As we social distance to help our communities recover from COVID-19 as quickly as possible, wearing masks is a key part of reducing spread and protecting our more vulnerable friends and family. It’s a small action that can do so much in the fight against this virus, and keeps us all safe while we work to get our nation strong and healthy again.