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Wearing a face mask, washing your hands, and social distancing are all critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The effectiveness of wearing a mask in particular has, however, become a widely contested topic due to the circulation of misinformation online. Here, we will discuss some misconceptions about wearing face masks.
Wearing a mask is necessary even if you do not show obvious symptoms of illness. Studies have shown that symptoms of COVID-19 may not present themselves for up to two weeks after infection; in other cases, infected people may be completely asymptomatic. Wearing a mask helps to ensure that even if you are not aware that you are infected, you are lowering the risk of spreading your (possibly virus-containing) respiratory droplets to others. By forming a physical barrier to trap droplets released from sneezing, coughing, and talking, masks help you lower the rate of transmission of respiratory droplets to those around you. When others do the same, you protect one another.
Masks can protect you and others around you by containing the spread of respiratory droplets. Without a mask, the respiratory droplets you produce when talking, sneezing, coughing, or raising your voice can travel 6-8 feet. With a mask, they can travel less than one foot. When you and others are masked in public, respiratory droplets are more contained, and less remain in the air; with a covering over your nose and mouth, the risk of being exposed to the virus lessens considerably.
There is no scientific evidence that shows that masks pose a risk of carbon dioxide toxicity or hypoxia (reduced oxygen levels) in healthy adults. In fact, carbon dioxide molecules are small enough to pass through masks, and a well-fitted mask should be easy to breathe through. Wearing a mask is generally considered a safe practice, as shown by medical professionals who wear masks for extended periods of time.
Although it is better to cover your nose and mouth with something rather than nothing at all, some materials and fabrics are much more effective than others at blocking respiratory droplets from traveling. Some retailers and businesses have advertised “breathable” masks made from fabrics such as chiffon, tulle, and thin cottons. These are, however, not effective in blocking respiratory droplets as they are too loosely woven and may not effectively trap infected particles from traveling through. It is important to choose masks with multiple layers for maximum effectiveness, and ensure that the material is both breathable and either non-woven or very tightly woven (in the case of cloth face coverings).
While the outdoors allows for better air circulation, it is still recommended that you wear a mask anytime you are in the vicinity of others, both indoors and outdoors. Wearing a mask keeps the risk of encountering and spreading infected respiratory droplets low.
Wearing a mask is recommended in combination with social distancing as well as frequent hand washing. The combination of these practices is the most effective when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19. While wearing a mask can greatly contain the spread of respiratory droplets, it does not eliminate droplets completely, and so keeping your distance from others helps to reduce the chance of encountering infected droplets.
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