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7 Myths About Face Masks

Why they're really recommended, plus when and where you should wear them

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Face masks are everywhere. What were once reserved for hospitals and health care settings are now a common sight on sidewalks and in businesses throughout the country. Still, there are a number of misconceptions when it comes to masks. Here are seven common face-mask myths, busted.

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Myth 1: You don't need to wear a face mask if you don't feel sick.

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This was the prevailing advice at the beginning of the pandemic, but not anymore. Experts have learned more about the coronavirus and how it spreads, and now the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that everyone — including people who feel perfectly healthy — should wear a face covering in public settings where it may be difficult to maintain at least 6 feet of space from other people. Think: grocery stores, pharmacies, retail shops, hair salons, crowded parks and more.

The reason? It's an added layer of protection. The virus is thought to spread easily between people who are in close contact with one another by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. And because some infected people might be presymptomatic or even asymptomatic, and as such are at risk of unknowingly spreading the virus to others, a face mask provides “an extra layer to help prevent the respiratory droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people,” the CDC says.

People who feel sick should stay home and not venture out in public. That said, they should wear a face mask when interacting with family members or caregivers at home.

Myth 2: Everyone should be wearing surgical masks or N95 respirators.

The advice from the CDC is that the general public should wear cloth face coverings, not medical-grade masks, which are best left for health care professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. The CDC-recommended coverings can be purchased (major clothing retailers such as Gap and Disney are selling them), sewn or fashioned from everyday household items, such as bandannas and rubber bands — even socks.

Myth 3: A loose-fitting mask works just fine.

This is false. The key is to make sure your face mask “fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face,” says the CDC, and completely covers the mouth and nose to help prevent respiratory droplets from escaping. That said, it's important to make sure you can breathe without restriction with it on.

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Myth 4: Your cloth face covering protects you from getting a coronavirus infection.

Cloth masks may reduce your risk of getting infected, but there haven't been enough studies on them “in real-world settings” to know for sure whether they protect the wearer from becoming infected with the coronavirus, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reports. What's more likely is that cloth face coverings help prevent an infected wearer from spreading disease to others by minimizing the dispersal of respiratory droplets via talking, coughing and sneezing. (Studies looking at the effects of cloth face masks on influenza and other diseases also support this theory, NASEM points out.)

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Even with a face mask on, it's important not to abandon other preventative measures, such as frequent handwashing and physical distancing, the CDC says. Mitigating the risk of COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) requires a multipronged approach, “which includes social distancing and isolation and hygiene and wearing the masks,” explains Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., an associate hospital epidemiologist and chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “It's not one or the other. It's all of it.”

Myth 5: Babies should wear face masks.

Children under 2 should not wear a face mask, the CDC says. Neither should anyone who “has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

Myth 6: You should wear a face mask even when you swim.

If you plan to head to the pool or the beach this summer, don't forget to pack your face mask. It will come in handy when you're out of the water and around others. That said, you should not wear your face mask in the pool.

"The issue of getting a mask wet, the issue of then breathing through that mask — it's a setup for danger,” says Boris Lushniak, M.D., dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health and former acting and deputy U.S. surgeon general.

When you're in the water, the best way to reduce your risk of spreading or acquiring the virus is to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other people and to wash your hands often when you're done swimming.

Myth 7: Your face mask doesn't need to be washed.

Masks collect germs, so it's important to wash them after each use, the CDC advises. If you're using a washing machine, regular laundry detergent and warm water work just fine. To wash your mask by hand, mix up a solution of bleach and water (4 teaspoons of household bleach per 1 quart of room-temperature water) and soak your mask for 5 minutes before rinsing it with cool or room-temperature water. The CDC has detailed instructions on how to wash your face mask.

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