4 Reasons You Should Wear a Mask When Recommended

It's as simple as good hygiene.

The decision to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic sometimes seemed to become more of a political issue than a health issue, as writer Maggie O'Neill reported for Health in July 2020. "I've never felt quite as at-the-mercy-of-those-around-me as I have during the past four months," O'Neill wrote. At the time, there was a lack of national protocol around when and where to wear a face mask, and it wasn't uncommon to be shamed for wearing one and becoming angry when others didn't. Here are some of the top reasons why it's important to wear a mask when recommended, plus who should wear one.

While there wasn't a national protocol early on in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did recommend that "people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

So why all the fuss? Basically, scientists have shown that taking this extra precaution (in addition to social distancing) helped to significantly curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Who Should Wear a Mask?

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommended early on in the pandemic that almost all healthy kids and adults wear a mask, except for children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Some people were averse to wearing a mask, saying it was difficult to breathe in them. According to James Keany, MD, an emergency physician, patient safety physician champion, and former chief of staff at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, if your respiratory status is truly that tenuous that you're not able to breathe through a cloth face covering, you should stay home and not expose yourself to any risk.

"If you are truly that fragile, a COVID-19 infection could be a death sentence," Dr. Keany previously told Health.

As of Sept. 9, 2022, the CDC recommended mask use based on community (low, medium, or high) and individual risk. If the COVID-19 community level of risk is "low," "people may choose to mask at any time," per the CDC. The CDC still recommended masks on indoor public transportation. And local governments could set their mandates.

If the community level of risk for COVID-19 is "medium" and you are at high risk for severe COVID-19, the CDC recommended you wear a "high-quality mask or respirator." If you're getting together with someone who's at higher risk for severe illness, the CDC recommended getting tested before seeing them and wearing a mask while you're with them.

When the community risk level is "high," the CDC recommended everyone wear a "high-quality mask or respirator." And if you're at risk for severe illness, the CDC recommended "avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed."

1. They Reduce Viral Transmission (If Worn Correctly)

"Surgical masks and cloth coverings can reduce viral transmission by 70% if everyone wears them and wears them correctly over [their] nose and mouth," Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine previously told Health, emphasizing the importance of not only wearing a mask but wearing it properly.

According to the CDC, that means washing your hands before putting on your face mask and making sure it covers your nose and mouth once in place. It should also fit comfortably, but snugly on your face. If it's a disposable mask, the CDC recommended throwing it away after one use.

If it's a cloth mask, you can store it in its own bag and reuse it that day, then wash it that night for the next day (but if it becomes wet or dirty during use, wash it before using it again).

2. They Prevent Presymptomatic Spread, Preventing Others From Getting Sick

According to a January 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open, "transmission from asymptomatic individuals was estimated to account for more than half of all transmissions."

In other words, you could be carrying the virus in your body before you get any symptoms of it (aka presymptomatic)—or you may have the virus but never get symptoms, in which case, you would be asymptomatic.

Wearing a mask is an easy way to reduce the risk of unknowingly spreading the infection, but it's not a panacea—people also need to observe social distancing and practice good hand hygiene. "Masks don't take the place of these other measures," Eric Westman, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University, told Health.

3. You’re Protecting Yourself From Getting Sick

Experts went back and forth at the beginning of the pandemic about whether wearing a mask would also protect the one wearing it. However, in December 2021, the CDC stated studies showed that the person wearing the mask is also partially protected from being exposed to infectious droplets coming from other people with the virus—better than without a mask.

Referring to cloth masks, in particular, the CDC also said, "multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts." The CDC also said that respirators such as N95s provided the highest protection against the virus, while loosely woven cloth masks offered the least protection.

4. They’re Good Hygiene in General

Before the pandemic, medical professionals—from surgeons to dentists—wore masks to protect themselves from contracting potential illnesses from patients; they also wore them to prevent their germs from spreading. In some cultures, wearing a mask when one is ill or has allergies is common. Wearing a mask to protect yourself and others when in a high-risk situation is good hygiene.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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5 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Covid-19 guidance documents.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Covid-19 use and care of masks.

  3. Johansson MA, Quandelacy TM, Kada S, et al. Sars-cov-2 transmission from people without covid-19 symptoms. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(1):e2035057-e2035057.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Covid-19 Science brief: Community use of masks to control the spread of SAR-CoV2.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Covid-19 Types of masks and respirators.

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