People who wear masks are still getting sick. Why?

By August 20, 2020 COVID-19

There are numerous points of misinformation surrounding the current COVID crisis. While tactics such as social distancing and handwashing have consensus, masks have become the most prominent point of contention. The initial confusion came from a combination of contradictory information being shared from governments and health organisations, which led to federal authorities discouraging the public from buying masks. While this was essential to ensure our healthcare workers had proper protection, the disinformation sowed distrust in the critical function masks serve in our daily COVID life.   

Over time, bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have changed their tone about face covers as CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield explains. “Face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting.” 

Here we will cover (pun intended) two types of masks and their varying level of effectiveness and why people who wear masks can still get sick.  Not all masks are created equal, but it’s important to remember that any face protection is better than none.

What Mask Are You Wearing?

Surgical Masks 

With global production in full swing, surgical masks are the best option for the general public. They are made from polypropylene, which is known to be one of the lightest synthetic fibers in existence. Unlike cotton, silk, or nylon face covers, polypropylene fibers stack on top of each other in a way that almost resembles a bird’s nest. This disorganized stacking reduces microscopic holes in the fabric, creating more protection. Surgical masks are also disposable, which lowers the risk of contracting COVID from touching an exposed face cover that has come in contact with the virus.

Cloth Face Covers

Cloth face covers have received a lot of attention recently as researchers study their effectiveness. Generally made from reusable materials such as cotton, silk, and nylon are far from perfect. Unlike polypropylene, these other materials can house a virus for much longer when directly exposed to COVID. They also create larger areas for “leakage,” a term used to describe air escaping from the edge of a mask. Leakage increases the chances of spreading the virus during high-risk situations like coughing or sneezing.

How Effective Is Your Face Protection?

Concierge Doctors Medical Director Zac Turner advises Australians wearing face covers to focus on their protective qualities such as the materials they are made from and the quality of fit around the face and nose. “Although cloth face covers are comfortable and stylish, they offer less protection than surgical masks and can lose their effectiveness after the material dampens from the moisture in each breath.” 

“Wearing a mask should primarily be about protecting the people around you. Therefore, wearing a cover that is ineffective and not taking proper precautions like washing your hands should be considered the same as not wearing a mask.”

Studies show that people are more susceptible to COVID when removing, applying, or touching their masks. That is why putting it on properly, and washing or disposing of it is essential to minimising risk.

Dr. Zac Turner echos this research as he highlights the importance of alternating or washing reusable cloth covers after each use. “If you are going to wear a cloth face cover instead of a safer option like a surgical mask, I recommend washing it with hot water and soap after each use and refrain from touching it as much as possible. If you do have to touch your mask, wash your hands before and after.”

The evidence behind wearing face covers is clear and should be taken seriously. Surgical masks are made from the most effective material and can be disposed of regularly, making them the best option for the general public. Although cloth face covers are better than nothing, they should be worn for short periods and washed after every use.