10 Myths About Face Masks You Need to Know

If you've been spreading these face mask myths, it's time you watch your mouth.

By now you've heard plenty about face masks. But not everything you've heard is true. As with the reset of the misinformation floating around with the COVID-19 contagion, plenty of myths have crept into the conversation.

While masks have often been politicized amid the coronavirus pandemic, these myths don't fall squarely into one camp, either. Some people erroneously believe masks are obsolete in the fight against coronavirus, while others falsely think they're the silver bullet solution to squashing the virus. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between.

To help you determine fact from fiction, we talked to some top doctors to learn the cold hard facts about face masks in the time of coronavirus. Read on to debunk the most dangerous myths about masks out there—some of which are putting lives at risk right at this very moment. And if you want to know what mask mistakes you're making, check out 7 Face Mask Care Mistakes You're Making.

Myth: Masks are primarily used to protect the wearer.

white man wearing mask and blue peacoat on subway during coronavirus covid-19 pandemic

Fact: Many people incorrectly assume that wearing a mask is all about keeping yourself safe, but the reality is that the biggest benefit is to those around you.

"Masks are used to contain your respiratory secretions and protect others from you," explains physician Leann Poston, MD, medical content contributor for Invigor Medical. This just goes to show that masks are not a sign of "fear," as so many people suggest. Instead, they're a sign of social responsibility and courtesy.

Myth: Homemade masks aren't effective against COVID-19.

Homemade protective mask and pieces of cloth on a gray background. Selective focus.

Fact: Not all masks are created equal, but that doesn't mean that non-medical grade masks are obsolete. "Wearing a homemade face mask may not prevent a healthy person from getting the virus. However, masks can prevent COVID-19-positive people from spreading the virus to others," explains Chris Norris, MD, a California-based neurologist and chartered physiotherapist.

Any time you leave the house and expect to be around other people, you should plan on wearing something to cover your nose and mouth to combat the spread of COVID-19. And if you want to make your own mask, check out The 7 Best Materials for Making Your Own Face Mask, Backed by Science.

Myth: We should all be wearing N95 masks.

closeup of exchange of n95 mask

Fact: There's a pecking order, when it comes to the efficacy of face masks. According to Norris, "an N95 mask offers more protection than a surgical mask and cloth mask because it can filter out both large particles and 95 percent of very small particles." He explains that surgical masks and cloth masks can prevent a person from breathing in larger droplets, but not smaller ones.

While a medical professional may need an N95, a cloth mask is sufficient for a socially distanced walk through the park, as long as you take other standard precautions like social distancing. That's why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says we should leave N95s for those who need them most: those on the frontlines.

Myth: If you're wearing a mask, you don't need to practice social distancing.

four friends wearing face masks walking down a city street

Fact: According to David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California, the best protection from coronavirus is not simply wearing a mask, but instead pairing that practice with social distancing and washing your hands frequently.

Norris agrees that masks are not a catch-all solution to keeping safe from the novel coronavirus—and in fact, doing so can provide a false sense of security to the wearer. "Rather than viewing it as the sole way you're staving off infection, it should be seen as a tool in a larger group of anti-infection measures," he urges. And to avoid needless coronavirus exposure, check out these 7 Ways You're Wearing Your Mask All Wrong.

Myth: Disposable masks need to be thrown out after one use.

young white woman shopping while wearing mask
Shutterstock/Maria Sbytova

Fact: Masks are hard to come by these days, but luckily, there are many everyday occasions in which you can reuse your disposable masks. "If you've taken a quick run to buy milk wearing a disposable mask, don't throw it out when you get home," says Norris. "Instead, let it sit for 10 to 14 days and the virus—if it's present—will die." Allow it to air out in a sunny, well ventilated spot that you won't touch in the meantime.

Myth: Masks only need to cover your mouth, not your nose.

woman pulling mask down under her chin

Fact: Though many people believe covering their mouth is sufficient, Norris explains that this is an especially dangerous myth, since COVID-19 attaches to receptors in the eyes and the nose as well. He adds, for example, that "failing to wear a mask that covers your nose doesn't protect others should you sneeze." And for more common mistakes with masks you've probably seen, here are 7 Ways You're Still Wearing Your Face Mask Wrong.

Myth: Masks only work if you're showing symptoms.

Couple wearing masks on public transportation together

Fact: According to Cara Pensabene, MD, a medical director for EHE Health, masks are still essential protection, regardless of whether you're showing symptoms of the virus or not. "Up to 60 percent of people who test positive for coronavirus have no symptoms," she explains. "And yes, it's possible for someone who has COVID-19 but no symptoms to spread the virus."

Myth: Coronavirus isn't airborne, so we don't need masks.


Fact: While the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that COVID-19 is not airborne—since it appears to spread through respiratory droplets—more recent studies have suggested that common activities like talking may also be spreading the disease while people are still asymptomatic. That means, even if you're seemingly healthy, wearing a mask could be crucial in stopping the spread.

Myth: Masks only protect against coughs and sneezes.

older asian man wearing face mask and coughing

Fact: As Norris points out, masks are essential for blocking transmission of the virus any time you talk with another person. "Even if you're not coughing, you're talking, and talking releases many smaller respiratory particles into the air, where they can be breathed in by other people," he says.

Myth: Masks allow carbon dioxide to accumulate, and can make you sick.

Viruses in human lungs, 3D illustration. Conceptual image for viral pneumonia, flu, MERS-CoV, SARS, Adenoviruses and other respiratory viruses

Fact: According to Poston, the biggest myth out there about cloth masks is that wearing them will cause your blood oxygen level to drop or your blood carbon dioxide level to spike. "Cloth face masks and surgical masks do not filter the air, they are not airtight, and they do not seal to the face," she says. "Surgeons and other medical professionals wear surgical masks all day long with no effect on their blood carbon dioxide level." And for more myths you need to debunk stat, check out 21 Coronavirus Myths You Need to Stop Believing, According to Doctors.

Best Life is constantly monitoring the latest news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed. Here are the answers to your most burning questions, the ways you can stay safe and healthy, the facts you need to know, the risks you should avoid, the myths you need to ignore,and the symptoms to be aware of. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.
Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more