Coronavirus: Do I Actually Need a Face Mask? What Should I Get?


Coronavirus: Do I Actually Need a Face Mask? What Should I Get?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Over the last week, there’s been a mad scramble, as panicked Indians have rushed to buy face masks and hoard bottle after bottle of sanitiser, to protect themselves from the coronavirus pandemic. Now as more companies urge employees to work from home, and talks of shutting down entire cities pick up steam, the streets are beginning to resemble a scene from a post-apocalyptic film.

The few who venture out – from rickshawallas to joggers – seem to be sporting a face mask, or respirator to protect themselves from contracting Covid-19. Ranging from ₹2 to ₹500, these masks are almost always sold-out at chemists — leading to some selling them at 300 per cent hikes — and come with all kinds of promises about keeping harmful particles out of your system. But are they really necessary?

If you currently show no symptoms of coronavirus, the answer is a flat no, no matter what your source of news is. In fact, wearing a mask for no reason actually increases your risk of infection — often because no one has any idea how to wear them, and hence end up touching their face more often than desirable. But even if you promise not to touch your face, masks don’t work that well with anyone who has a beard, or if they get even slightly damp, or if you leave any air pockets at all. So they’re not very reliable in the hands of a non-expert anyway.

Wearing the mask wrong, or for too long in the day, can lead to breathing issues.

So who should really be wearing a mask? Anyone who is currently showing symptoms of coronavirus, is a caregiver to someone with Covid-19, or works around sick people, could probably benefit from having one. Do note that these masks are designed to keep “droplets” in — and not block any out — so they are mostly only intended to avoid turning you into a bearer of pestilence. Since the coronavirus is not an airborne disease, these masks aren’t really doing much to stop any incoming viruses, either way.

But there are so many different masks to choose from, it’s impossible to generalise. You’ve probably noticed a few variations while walking down the street. The most popular in this case being the bright yellow “N95 respirator”, which will be a little familiar to you, if you remember anything about the swine flu pandemic. Today, they’re selling out across the country, with stores hiking their prices to match the demand.

They’re popular because unlike other respirators, they apparently can both protect the wearer from getting sick and protect the patient from the wearer’s germs. So why aren’t they recommended? Because once again, no one has an idea of how to wear them, or rarely get them to be completely airtight without any contamination. And even if you pull that off, as this doctor told Forbes, “No respirator will eliminate exposures entirely.”

Ranging from ₹2 to ₹500,masks are almost always sold-out at all chemists.

The second kind of mask you’ll see frequently is the regular surgical mask, which too has seen a 300 per cent price rise in the last couple of weeks. Again these (one time use!) masks aren’t recommended unless you’re already suffering from symptoms of coronavirus, since all they do is stop germs spreading from you, and don’t block any incoming germs. Their loose fit also leaves a lot of margin for error, making them best placed in the hands of surgeons or medical staff who know what they’re doing!

That hasn’t stopped a few people from going for more hi-tech masks, such as the P100 respirator, and are walking around like they’re employees at a nuclear power plant. Again, any mask that promises to block out more particles than the average N95 respirator, is wholly unnecessary when it comes to dealing with Covid-19. They’re mostly meant to protect from asbestos and other harmful chemicals  that manual labourers are often exposed to on the job.

Hundreds of articles, meanwhile, suggest that wearing these masks for long periods are also harmful to anyone with pre-existing breathing disorders, or children, or elderly folk. Again in these cases, it’s also likely that wearing the mask wrong, or for too long in the day, can lead to breathing issues. So here’s one final tip: Unless you have a valid reason to wear a mask, or a doctor very specifically asks you to do so, maybe just avoid them altogether. And wash your hands.