(Updated on March 7, 2020) Whenever a public health crisis emerges, waves of safety guidelines and preventative tips are almost guaranteed to follow. Coming from credible sources and trained professionals, such advice is helpful and even life-saving. However, when the individuals and institutions sharing these bits of information have tremendous passion but little in the way of actual expertise, the result is a misguided public that may end up being at even greater risk. This is also why we sometimes get confused about even the simplest of things—like the proper way to wear a surgical mask, for example. It’s time to answer this question: What is the right way to wear a surgical mask?
Components of a surgical mask
First, understanding how to properly wear surgical masks requires a basic knowledge of their construction. Standard masks typically have a three-layer design, and are intended to hold viruses at bay, whether they’re from outside or inside the body.
The first layer is often colored blue or green, and is water-repellent. It keeps liquid droplets from coming into contact with the wearer.
The middle layer filters germs both ways, preventing them from leaving or entering the wearer’s body.
Lastly, the white innermost layer absorbs moisture, preventing bodily fluids from escaping the mask.
All three layers are usually non-woven and made of polypropylene, a durable, recyclable thermoplastic. The mask itself has a bendable edge that you can mold to the shape of your nose, indicating which side goes up.
Should you wear a surgical mask to protect yourself from COVID-19?
The mask serves the dual purpose of preventing the wearer from getting and sharing infectious diseases. It doesn’t just keep the wearer safe; it helps keep other people safe from whatever the wearer may be carrying, too. However, while surgical masks can protect us from large droplets, they aren’t enough to protect us from smaller airborne particles, and they leave our eyes exposed. It’s also worth noting that, according to molecular epidemiologist Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana, there’s more evidence for masks “preventing transmission from someone who is already sick.”
Basically, masks aren’t enough to protect us. In fact, relying on them too much could put us in danger, as we might forget to wash our hands and practice other hygiene measures. “The mask helps only if you’re visiting a place where there are vulnerable people, like say, hospitals or facilities for the elderly, or where there may be suspected cases,” says public health specialist Dr. Edrie T. Alcanzare. “Even during the worst of the SARS outbreak, people who were not directly in health care were not advised to wear masks.”
So, how should people wear surgical masks?
Salvana and Alcanzare agree: Colored side out. Additionally, when putting on the mask, the wearer must make sure to properly cover their nose, mouth, and chin.
Ultimately, though? The best way to stay safe is to practice “common-sense measures”: Wash your hands properly with soap and water, avoid coming into contact with sick people, take a day off from work or school when you’re sick, and avoid touching your eyes and nose as much as possible.
Oh, and unless it’s verified by actual experts, don’t just blindly share health “advice,” whether you hear it from personal acquaintances or public figures.
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Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.