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Last updated January 19, 2021. 5 minute read

Should you use a mask to protect against COVID-19?

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Mike Bohl, MD, MPH


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and vaccine distribution becomes more widespread, the guidelines about when you need to wear a mask can be confusing. Should you still wear a mask even if you’ve been vaccinated? What about if you haven’t gotten vaccinated but you’ve tested negative for COVID? We’ve covered everything you need to know about when you need to wear a mask and why.

Vitals

  • Wearing a mask helps protects the people around you from getting infected if you currently have the coronavirus.
  • No COVID test is 100% accurate. That means that even if you test negative, you should still wear a mask around people who are not part of your household
  • If you’ve already received one or two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, it’s still important to socially distance. It can take a while before your vaccine gives you ample protection and even then, no vaccine prevents 100% of cases.
  • Keep up your mask-wearing, staying at home when you can, and social distancing when you cannot.

While there was some confusion and miscommunication early in the pandemic about whether or not mask-wearing was crucial, by now healthcare providers and public health officials are in agreement. Masks prevent the spread of COVID-19 both by people who are showing symptoms and people who are not (Howard, 2020).

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a rush to buy masks, and many stores ran out of their supply. Luckily, since then, it’s become clear that you don’t need fancy medical-grade masks. Even cloth face coverings are effective when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19 (Chughtai, 2020).

The CDC currently recommends using multilayer masks and making sure they fit snuggly over your nose and mouth. The CDC recommends against using masks with exhalation valves as they can let COVID-19 particles out. It’s best to leave the medical-grade respirator masks for healthcare professionals (CDC, 2021).

Should I wear a mask if I’ve tested negative for COVID-19?

Since no test is 100% accurate, if you find yourself out of the house, among people who aren’t part of your household, or in a large crowd, you should always wear a mask. Coronavirus testing is crucial to curbing the spread of the virus and you should get a test if you need one. But a negative test isn’t a free ride. It’s just a snapshot of your status the moment you were tested and it’s still important to be vigilant.

“The virus is spread via respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing,” explains Dr. Patrick Kenney, DO, FACOI. Kenney is double-board certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease and is a faculty member at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston, FL.

Respiratory droplets are small particles of saliva or mucus that are expelled from the body when a person sneezes, coughs, or breathes hard. These droplets can travel through the air, eventually falling to the ground (or on other nearby surfaces). And if a person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus can be present inside the droplets.

If a healthy person is in close proximity to a sick person, they can get sick through the air. Respiratory droplets can travel directly from an infected person and land on a healthy person. That’s why social distancing is so important. If you don’t come into contact with others, it is less likely you will become infected.

According to Dr. Kenney, face masks may protect against both of these methods of transmission. “Masks do help provide a shield from respiratory droplets,” he says, later adding that they “also may help a person not touch their face,” another way to spread the virus.

But not all masks are created equal.

The different types of masks

Surgical masks (face masks)

These flat masks, with bands that hook around your ears or ties that go behind the head, likely do not provide adequate protection from the coronavirus because they do not create a seal. The sides are open, leaving space for pathogens to enter. These masks mostly provide protection for other people from you, since they’re directly blocking respiratory droplets that may come from your mouth or nose.

Respirators

Respirators are different from face masks because they form a seal around the face and can protect against airborne particles. Respirators are named with an alphanumeric coding system, so you’ll see one letter with numbers following it. The letter stands for how resistant it is to oil while the number stands for what percentage of airborne particles it can filter out in worst-case scenario testing. There are three letters and three numbers you may see on respirators:

  • N = this indicates a respirator is not oil resistant
  • R = this indicates a respirator is oil resistant
  • P = this indicates a respirator is oil-proof
  • 95 = this indicates a respirator filters out 95% of particles
  • 99 = this indicates a respirator filters out 99% of particles
  • 100 = this indicates a respirator filters out 99.97% of particles

One of the most commonly available respirators, which is also sufficient at protecting against SARS-CoV-2, is the N95 respirator. You don’t need a fancy mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though. Even a cloth mask is effective.

Other measures to take to protect yourself from coronavirus

“First and foremost, wash your hands with soap and warm water regularly, as this is the best way to stop the spread of many pathogens, including coronavirus,” Dr. Kenney advises, adding that you should “avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands.” In order to ensure you’re practicing proper hand hygiene, make sure that you’re washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds after using the restroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating.

You should also minimize contact with sick people, if possible. “Technology is a great way to facilitate care without exposure,” suggests Dr. Kenney, indicating that you can use technology to both care for others remotely and get in touch with a healthcare provider if you think you are sick yourself.

Finally, everyone should stay up-to-date on information about coronavirus, since recommendations regarding mask use may change.

If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask?

While the vaccines have been shown to be very effective when it comes to preventing infection with the coronavirus, no vaccine is 100% effective. If you’ve only recently received the first dose, it can take days to weeks for your immune system to respond. Estimates say that depending on which vaccine you get, the first dose may prevent 50-80% of new cases of COVID-19 (Pollack, 2020).

But even if you’ve had both doses, it’s not a reason to let down your guard. Large trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have shown promising results, and while they do prevent most cases of COVID-19, they don’t prevent every case.

It may be some time before we’re back to normal, but until we are, stay vigilant. Stay home when you can, socially distance when you go out, and make sure to wear a mask over your nose and mouth whenever you might encounter people who are not part of your household.