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

Surgical masks in Asia

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

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. Carkod

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I can assure you that Chinese do it to protect THEMSELVES, not to protect others…

    • Elieza

      December 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm

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

      • Drew Del

        July 4, 2015 at 2:19 am

        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.

        • Bonnie

          April 21, 2019 at 11:57 am

          There was a comment on Sunday Morning on TV just now as to why so many Koreans wear face masks. The reason the interviewers gave was that the air pollution is so bad in Korea and surrounding countries that it’s an allergy and lung disease precaution.

    • Lydia

      March 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      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?

      • John

        April 3, 2014 at 3:47 pm

        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.

      • Mia

        April 4, 2014 at 5:51 pm

        Western surgeons wear masks during operations.

    • Elis

      October 5, 2014 at 12:36 am

      How would containing that bacteria on your face protect yourself?

    • Sam

      May 2, 2015 at 12:34 am

      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.

    • owen

      January 18, 2018 at 12:20 am

      Back in the days in Hong Kong when SARS was bad. People there wore the surgical mask to A) protect them self B) to not pass flu or any disease. At least that is what was told to do so to minimize the possible of effecting other’s or getting infected. Of course over the years it became a trend/habit. If there’s questions in regarding why people wear mask in “Asia” do your research and don’t stereotype over Asians.

  2. Moxie

    June 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    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. Kevin Miller

    December 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    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. Grace

    December 8, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    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.

    • Amber

      November 19, 2013 at 8:22 pm

      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.

      • Galoito

        November 28, 2013 at 4:22 am

        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

      • Andy

        January 28, 2014 at 5:07 am

        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.

        • blerrrg

          July 21, 2015 at 12:03 am

          Countries are lines on a map, silly.

      • lydtrek

        November 18, 2014 at 10:10 pm

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

  5. Zeno

    January 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    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.

    • Lydia

      March 25, 2014 at 12:29 pm

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

  6. Caroleflower

    April 28, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    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!

    • Hongjae

      June 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      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. :(

    • Leong

      September 1, 2013 at 6:51 am

      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.

      • Lydia

        March 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm

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

    • ParkJimin

      October 4, 2016 at 10:13 pm

      People around the world do that, not just Chinese people. x’D

  7. Amanda

    April 16, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    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.

  8. nicholas

    March 29, 2017 at 3:16 am

    This is way off. It may be somewhat true in Japan, though I still don’t figure the main reason is to prevent disease spread away from the source. People wear masks in Japan and Korea for much the same reason — to cover their faces when they aren’t looking their best. This includes when they’ve got a cold and have snotty noses, but extends to post-surgery, no-makeup mornings, etc.

    That said, I’m a fan of the practice, for the added benefit that their coughs (which are diligently covered in Japan and kindly spouted into the air generally in South Korea) end up on the inside of their masks. Even if germophobe western nations, germs spread pretty readily.

    The real cultural tip that you could be delivering here is that bodily fluids are considered an unclean, unpure thing. Fair enough. But so is the outdoors — which is why many east asians take off their shoes when going indoors, to keep the inside uncontaminated — and therefore there is no reason not to splash one’s bodily fluids across every conceivable outdoor public surface. It’s already polluted and unclean, after all. Any KPOP lovers out there – your idols are basically filthy clothes-horses.

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