Why Is It Common To See People Wearing Surgical Masks In Asian Countries?

Why Is It Common To See People Wearing Surgical Masks In Asian Countries?

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Surgical masks in Asia

In parts of China, Korea and Japan it is very common to see people wearing surgical masks out in public, or in the workplace. Are these mask wearers hypochondriacs, or do they have a valid reason to wear the masks? A better question might be, do the masks actually work as intended?

Why Do They Wear The Masks?

Contrary to widespread belief, these masks aren’t worn to protect the wearer – they are worn to protect others. One common example is the masks worn by surgeons during an operation. They are worn specifically to keep their own bacteria, viruses and germs from entering the patient’s (open or exposed) body.

In many Asian countries, even parts that aren’t heavily populated, it’s common for people to wear the masks if they think they’re getting sick, are sick, or even have a slight cold. They do this as a courtesy to prevent spreading their own infection to others.

asia surgical masksThe reason the flu and colds are so transmissible is because when you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose, there are millions of little viruses on the droplets in the fine mist you’ve just expelled into the air – mist which can be inhaled by people around you. If you’ve just blown your nose and opened a door, touched a table, elevator button, or payphone, someone else can touch those objects and then rub their eyes. It’s quick and efficient transmission.

The surgical masks help to mitigate or stop the spray of virus-containing moisture from getting very far.

Do They Completely Stop Viruses?

Unfortunately, no. To completely stop viruses, an N95, N99, or a N100 rated mask would be required to reliably block micro-particles as small as viruses and bacteria.

Luckily, when viruses and bacteria are aerosolized through coughing or sneezing, they are usually riding on water droplets much larger than the size of an individual virus or bacteria. Regular surgical masks are generally sufficient for blocking these. While they aren’t 100% effective at stopping viruses, they can cut the risk of transmission by a substantial amount. Considering how cheap surgical masks are, it’s definitely worth the cost and effort to put one on.

Fashion Trends

A recent trend in some Asian cultures is the use of masks for fashion or for utility. Since masks have become ubiquitous, women have begun wearing them to avoid having to put on make-up before hitting the streets. If they just need to run a couple errands or down to the corner store, it’s easier to slip on a mask and blend in than it is to spend an hour or more applying make-up. Pop stars, actresses and models also wear them to avoid getting recognized in public, and to avoid having the paparazzi catching them not looking their best.

Johnson Flu Mask Study (PDF)

Health and Safety Laboratory (PDF)
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  1. I can assure you that Chinese do it to protect THEMSELVES, not to protect others…

    1. Yet another person stereotyping someone because of their race. There is good and bad in every single race.

      1. Around 40-80% of people in a lot of Asian cities in a lot of Asian countries. Are you trying to tell me that 40-80% of their population is sick, and don’t want to make other people sick, so they wear masks?! They’re wearing the masks to protect themselves. If you want to think that half of the Asian populous is sick and doen’t want to get other people sick, you’re crazy. It’s not a stereotype, it’s common sense.

    2. Wow… You’re rude. By the way, I am shocked that Western surgeons don’t wear masks during an operation. That’s not hygienic, is it?

      1. Where did you get the idea that Western surgeons don’t wear surgical masks? The article specifically says that surgeons wear masks. You’re calling someone rude and you’re just as ill informed as them.

      2. Western surgeons wear masks during operations.

    3. How would containing that bacteria on your face protect yourself?

    4. Living in a developing Asian country is fun! I see people driving motorcycles full speed, wearing a surgical mask, and no helmet! It’s better not to breathe those germs than it is to protect your brain from an accident.

  2. Well great, while they are protecting themselves they are also stopping what ever bacteria they have from spreading to others. Who cares if they are protecting THEMSELVES.. Good for them, I am about protecting MYSELF as well!

  3. I’m sorry, but in Japan at least, this is not the case for the majority of people. While true for some, other reasons include not wanting to get sick, trying to prevent allergens (pollen) from reaching the airways, not having had time to put on makeup, being unhappy about how you look, and to inhibit social interaction. The number of people who wear masks outnumbers the number of sick people by at least 300% in my humble estimation.

  4. Japan & Taiwan: they probably wear it like you said.
    China: They want to protect from air pollution. Supposedly 20 of the 30 cities with the most polluted air are located in China.

    Don’t categorize and stereotype Asia as one big clump. There’s more Asians than there are in North America and Europe: North & South Korean 73 million, Japan 126 million, China 1.34 billion V.S. Europe 595 million, USA 309 million, Rest of North America 229 million.

    1. I like how you said “rest of North America” when Canada and the USA are the only countries in North America that are large and heavily populated. Also, the population of North America is 528.7 million, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have 538 million Asian people living there.

      1. Mexico, contrary to popular belief, is part of North America. There is also a large population of Asian ethnicity there so perhaps he included the entire North America, not just part of it. Wink

      2. You completely misunderstood him. He’s saying that the population of Asia is greater than that of North America and Europe combined, not that there are 538 millions Asians living in North America.

        I think he’s trying to use the logic that there are more Asians so they should not be stereotyped and “lumped together” as he puts it. However, I think he’s shot himself in the foot a little bit because although he’s stated the Asian population is higher, the number of countries the population is divided between is much smaller so that should mean lower diversity and therefore easier to “lump together” than Europe and North America.

        1. Countries are lines on a map, silly.

      3. You forgot Mexico is part of North America. Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize, etc.. are part of Central America.

  5. Soft surgical masks work well while outside in very cold weather, like sub-zero. Lowered immune system function can also be a reason for people to wear masks. People wearing masks are unable to talk loud on their cell phones.

    1. I wore masks at school so that I could chat with friends without being noticed (my mouth was covered). :)

  6. Then they should learn to wash their hands & stop picking their noses too! I moved to Temple City CA, work in Arcadia 50% Chinese & I’ve never seen more nose picking in public in my life! It’s disgusting! I rarely see one wash their hands upon exiting the restroom either!

    1. That sounds terrifying to me. But please don’t think that happens in or all around Asia. I lived in S. Korea my entire life time and I’ve never seen people picking their nose in public. When I was in China for a month, I didn’t see that either. It makes me not want to work in California if that kind of culture and habit is common. :(

    2. That sounds gross. But like what Hong says, it’s definitely not representative of all Asians. In fact, here in Singapore, digging noses in public is frowned upon and seen as uncouth, so you rarely see such things.

      1. In Hong Kong, if you pick your nose in public, I bet others will tape you and post it on YouTube!

  7. Many Asian (and also non-Asian) teens and young people are also wearing patterned masks and such for fashion now. They aren’t surgical, but I think this trend started from that.

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