Expert Sets Straight 5 Common Face Mask Myths

Woman putting on medical face mask.jpg

Face masks are one instrument in our toolbox to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, you’ve probably heard a myth or two about mask wearing that isn’t true. UnityPoint Health Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Leyla Best, debunks five common face mask myths to ensure everyone is armed with accurate information during this pandemic.

Myth #1: Wearing Face Masks Can Cause Fungal and Bacterial Infections – Like Pneumonia

First, let’s talk about bacterial infections. The way bacterial pneumonia tends to develop is through aspirating – or breathing in – contents into the lungs. So, in terms of wearing a mask, the respiratory droplets you exhale that land on the inside of your mask that you then breath back in will not give you bacterial pneumonia.

If you have phlegm, you should find a way to safely spit it out. That way you aren’t at risk of breathing in large amounts of mucus or saliva into your lungs, which is how bacterial pneumonia develops.

Fungal pneumonia, otherwise known as pneumonia caused by molds, is extremely rare and mostly seen in people with low performing immune systems – like those with cancer, a transplant or other types of immune deficiencies. One way you could, hypothetically, end up with fungal pneumonia is if you find an old mask that’s really moldy and decide to use it. It’s very important to keep your masks clean and wash them after every wear.

Additionally, people who regularly wear masks for prolonged periods of time don’t have higher rates of pneumonia than the rest of the population.

Myth #2: Wearing a Face Mask Causes Long-Term Lung Issues

Some people think wearing a mask leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your lungs. Cloth face masks and disposable masks still allow for an adequate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. To explain further, carbon dioxide molecules are much smaller than the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, the carbon dioxide you breath out doesn’t have any problem getting through the pores of a fabric or disposable mask. The virus that causes COVID-19 is much bigger and less likely to be expelled through the pores.

In addition, studies show you won’t damage your lungs from retained carbon dioxide from wearing a face mask.

One thing to clarify, there are certain people with underlying lung conditions who struggle to get a good exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Depending on the severity of their underlying disease, these people shouldn’t wear a face mask. Instead, they should look at other options, such as face shields, for added protection. Anyone with underlying lung conditions should consult with their doctor to find a solution that’s best for them.

Myth #3: According to Some Mask Boxes – Face Masks Don’t Protect You From COVID-19

There’s been an image online of a label on a disposable mask box saying the masks won’t protect against viruses. However, that doesn’t mean masks shouldn’t be worn.

In general, the largest benefit provided by masks is reducing the respiratory droplets put into the air when we talk, cough or sneeze. By wearing a mask, you minimize the risk of unknowingly spreading the virus, and you protect yourself by reducing your exposure to infectious droplets through filtration.

It's important to remember it’s not only wearing a mask, but how you wear it, that protects you and others. Whether you’re wearing a cloth or disposable mask, it must be tightly fitted to your face while covering both your nose and mouth with no gaps on the sides to provide the best protection. In addition to masking, continuing other mitigation efforts like physical distancing and avoiding crowds are still the best ways to avoid COVID-19 infection.

Myth #4: All Face Masks Are the Same, If They Cover Your Nose and Mouth

The number of layers your mask has, and the fabric it’s made of, does matter. For cloth masks, it’s best to have three layers of cotton. When buying disposable masks, look at the description to see if it has three layers.

If a fabric is too thin, it might not work adequately enough. That’s why the gaiters were questioned – due to only having one layer of fabric and wearers constantly touching the outside of the mask, which is not advised. There are good tutorials on how to make a multi-layer mask online.

In terms of a face shield, make sure it goes well below your chin, to the level of the ears and without openings on the forehead.

Myth #5 Face Masks Don't Work – It’s Like Putting a Screen Door on a Submarine

This is a common argument. It’s very similar to the social media videos of people using vapor to show how much gets through a face mask. Remember what is mentioned above, the virus that causes COVID-19 is much bigger than carbon dioxide and less likely to be expelled through mask pores.

Masks are effective. Wearing a face mask is one of the CDC approved strategies recommended to decrease the spread of the virus. But masking is just one of many tools we should use to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

To best protect yourself, wear your mask according to CDC recommendations and get your COVID-19 vaccine, if you’re eligible. The ultimate way to decrease, and eventually stop, the spread of this virus is by getting as many people vaccinated against the virus as possible.