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.
The 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.
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.