8 harmful face-mask myths about COVID-19 you don’t want to fall for or spread

8 harmful face-mask myths about COVID-19 you don’t want to fall for or spread

  • September 29, 2020
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Even if you aren’t sick, you should still be wearing a face mask.


Sarah Tew/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Across the country, wearing a face mask is mandated in places where social distancing isn’t possible, like retail stores, hair salons, schools and gas stations. This is to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Though we still have much to learn about the coronavirus, misinformation about face coverings is circulating. For example, some people who are opposed to mask-wearing are donning mesh masks that “cover” their nose and mouth but still allow the kinds of droplets known to transmit the virus to pass through. And others believe they don’t need to wear a mask if they’re not experiencing symptoms — that’s a myth that isn’t supported by leading health experts, doctors, scientists or national and international recommendations.

Here are eight myths about wearing face masks during the pandemic. This story updates frequently with new information and draws recommendations from the CDC, the World Health Organization and other health care institutions. It’s intended for informational purposes and isn’t medical advice. If you think you might have the coronavirus, follow these steps.

Read more: Where to buy a face mask online now

Myth 1: The coronavirus isn’t real, so masking isn’t necessary

More than 33 million confirmed cases and nearly 1 million deaths caused by the coronavirus have been reported across the globe. Yet some people still believe the virus is either a hoax or overblown. The US alone has had over 7.2 million confirmed cases and more than 200,000 deaths. CNET’s Science Editor Jackson Ryan, who holds a Ph.D. in medical clinical sciences, calls anti-vaccine conspiracies “dangerous and ill-informed.”

Some Americans don’t believe the virus is real due to conspiracy theories they read on social media. For example, Plandemic, a thread of videos touting conspiracy theories, is in part responsible for spreading COVID-19 untruths. These falsehoods have been repeatedly debunked by the medical and scientific communities.

If you’re going out in public or around people who aren’t in your household, wear a face mask to protect yourself and others. You or the other person could be sick without your knowledge, either because you’re asymptomatic, presymptomatic or mistake mild symptoms for other causes, such as allergies. People who are mildly affected can spread the virus to others, including loved ones who are at higher risk of developing severe forms of COVID-19.


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Myth 2: Masks can be made from any material as long as your face is covered

With a subset of people against the idea of wearing face masks (“anti-maskers”), several sellers online are offering mesh and lace masks for purchase. The vendors make the claim that the masks are more breathable. But an open weave doesn’t fulfill the function of trapping large respiratory droplets — from talking, coughing and sneezing — that could contain the coronavirus.

The best masks feature a tight-knit material and a filter pocket to help prevent respiratory droplets from passing through the mask. The most protective masks, N95 respirators, block 95% of tiny particles, including viruses, but during the pandemic they’ve been hard to come by and organizations have said medical and health care workers should be given first dibs.

A study from the Journal of Hospital Infection found that wearing a face covering slashed the risk of infection by 24% for a simple cotton covering and up to 99% for a professional, medical-grade filtration mask. The researchers also rank-ordered face mask material from most to least effective in their testing.

Read moreThese face masks were made just for kids

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Wear a mask even when you’re not experiencing symptoms.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Myth 3: Only sick people need to wear face masks

Just because you’re not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms doesn’t mean you’re not sick. The CDC cites more than a dozen studies that show asymptomatic or presymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus, even if they’re not aware they’re sick.

The earliest recommendations from the WHO supported the stance that healthy people didn’t need to wear masks, but after more evidence emerged, the organization updated its official recommendation.

To prevent transmitting the virus to others, it’s safest to wear a mask any time you’re around someone who isn’t in your household. It’ll help lower the risk of spreading respiratory droplets from talking, coughing and sneezing.

There’s growing evidence that the coronavirus may be airborne, meaning it could linger in the air long enough for someone to breathe it in and become infected. Wearing a mask forms a barrier that traps virus-containing droplets emitted by the wearer. In other words, if you’re not wearing a mask and you breathe in the same air as an infected person who also isn’t wearing a mask, your risk of acquiring the coronavirus increases. 

Read: MIT engineers design a reusable face mask that could be as effective as an N95

Myth 4: Wearing a medical mask causes you to breathe in more carbon dioxide

When worn properly, masks cover the bridge of the nose (above the nostrils) and extend below the chin without gaps on the sides, completely covering your nose and mouth. 

Some people suggest that medical masks (also known as surgical masks) trap exhaled carbon dioxide and cause you to breathe in more CO2. The WHO says the prolonged use of surgical masks doesn’t lead to CO2 intoxication or lack of oxygen. 

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Masks are only one step to preventing the spread of coronavirus.


Anne Dujmovic/CNET

Myth 5: You don’t have to social distance if you’re wearing a mask

People wear masks to reduce their chance of getting or spreading the coronavirus, like if they’re in a crowded market, at the pool or lake or walking downtown. However, the WHO says the use of masks alone isn’t enough to provide a sufficient amount of protection. Unlike N95 masks, which undergo a certification process, there’s no regulatory body governing the materials or process that go into the face masks you buy or make at home

For example, a cloth mask with only one layer of fabric isn’t considered as robust as a cloth mask with three layers and a filter. Meanwhile, N95 masks are certified, but after a critical shortage put frontline workers at risk, organizations have said they should be left for health care workers.

Along with mask use, you should continue to practice physical distancing, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. 

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Myth 6: Masks will weaken your immune system

This myth stems from the idea that the human immune system is strengthened by exposure to bacteria and other pathogens.

The American Lung Association says there’s no scientific evidence that wearing a mask weakens the immune system. However, even if someone who gets COVID-19 is young and healthy, without preexisting conditions, there’s evidence they can and do become severely ill or account for the spread of the coronavirus. For example, in California as of Sept. 27, the age group with the highest number of reported cases was 18-34, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Even kids are at risk of developing a deadly syndrome caused by the coronavirus, although it’s rare. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, however, as schools reopen across the country.

Washing your hands and wearing a mask won’t negatively impact your immune system, especially in adults who already have developed immune systems, according to Beaumont Health. If you’re concerned about having a weakened constitution, here are five ways to strengthen your immune system.

Myth 7: Cloth masks offer no protection from COVID-19

At the beginning of the pandemic, the coronavirus was so new that doctors were unsure of the extent to which wearing cloth face coverings or homemade masks — compared with medical-grade surgical or N95 masks — would help prevent the virus from spreading. 

Studies have since suggested, however, that a mask over the nose and mouth works as a physical barrier by absorbing respiratory droplets that can carry and spread the coronavirus. Though a cloth covering alone may not be able to completely prevent someone from acquiring the coronavirus, it makes it possible to contain the virus.

Other countries that required the use of masks early on in the pandemic have seen the spread of coronavirus slow down, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Myth 8: You don’t have to wear a mask outside

Spending time outside can be safer due to better air circulation, but you should still wear a mask in areas where physical distancing isn’t possible. For example, if you’re hiking on a busy trail or if you’re at an amusement park. More than half of Americans are still not wearing masks outdoors, according to a Gallup poll from August.

You don’t have to wear a mask outdoors if you’re running in a secluded area or if you’re spending time in your own backyard with the people you live with. If you plan on going to a crowded outdoor area, however, you should and may be required to wear a mask.

Need more information about face masks? Here’s where you can buy one online, how to make your face mask more comfortable and the best and worst materials for protecting against coronavirus.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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