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To mask or not to mask?

That has been the burning question since the Coronavirus outbreak which led to overburdened health sectors across the world. These burdens include a shortage of medical face masks for health workers, caused mainly by increasing demand from the general public. 

But what is the science behind face masks and how effective are they in slowing down the spread of COVID-19? 

In the UK, the public has been advised to wear face masks when leaving the house in order to stop the spread of coronavirus. This came after scientists provided the British government with research showing that face masks may help stop asymptomatic people from spreading the disease. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the two main routes of transmission of COVID-19 are through respiratory droplets and contact. Respiratory droplets are generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes and anyone within one meter is at risk of being exposed. 

With the incubation period for COVID-19 ranging from five to nine days but also able to last up to 14 days, during this period, some infected people can be contagious and transmit the virus to others without realising it.

WHO stresses that medical masks should be prioritized for health care workers. They don’t encourage or discourage the use of non-medical face masks and are awaiting more research to reveal whether non-medical masks are effective at all. To date, the use of masks made from other materials (nonmedical masks) in the community setting has not been well evaluated. So while WHO doesn’t necessarily encourage the use of non-medical masks, they advise that certain factors be considered. These include the breathability of the material, number of layers of fabric, water repellence, shape, and fit.   

In the US, however, the CDC advises the use of home-made masks to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others and as an additional voluntary public health measure.

WHO guidelines to the effective use of masks:

– Place the mask carefully, ensure that it covers the mouth and nose. Tie it securely to reduce gaps between the face and the mask.

– Avoid touching the mask while wearing it.

– When removing the mask, do not touch the front but untie it from behind. 

– After removal or whenever a used mask is touched, clean hands using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

– Replace damp mask with a new clean, dry mask.

– Do not reuse single-use masks.

– Discard single-use masks after each use


When wearing a mask, remember to still follow all other protective measures. Social distancing, regularly washing and sanitising your hands, etc. are all proven to be more effective in slowing the spread of the disease.