Do You Need a Mask?


As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, protection is on everyone’s mind. Many celebrities have posted photos of themselves on social media wearing masks over their noses and mouths to try to ward off the virus. Some are wearing them on planes, and others put them on when just running errands.

“I’ve already been in this movie. Stay safe. Don’t shake hands. Wash hands frequently,” actress Gwyneth Paltrow said in a recent Instagram post referencing her role in the 2011 film Contagion.

But are masks necessary?

For most people, the answer is no, according to the CDC. Only medical professionals, people caring for someone with coronavirus, or those who have the condition need to wear a mask.

Neha Pathak, MD, WebMD’s medical editor, says a mask may do a good job of reminding you to not touch your face. That can keep infected sneeze and cough droplets from getting into your nose and mouth. But masks may sometimes “do more harm than good because people have a false sense of security.” You may slack on basic hygiene practices — like washing your hands — that do a better job of protecting you from coronavirus.   

And although celebrity selfies show a variety of styles, Pathak notes that not all masks are the same or do the same job.

Surgical masks, like the one Kate Hudson wore in her post, are often blue with white borders. They don’t do a good job of guarding you from infected droplets. They’re best for people who already have the virus and need to avoid spreading it.

Cloth masks, like a bandana or handkerchief covering your nose and mouth, trap moisture and can help bacteria and viruses grow.

A reusable respirator, like the one Gwyneth Paltrow wore in a recent post, isn’t helpful unless you’re going to wash it every time someone sneezes or coughs around you, Pathak says. The N95 respirator, which Kim Kardashian West wore in her selfie, is what medical professionals use. It filters out at least 95% of particles in the air you breathe.  

kim kardashian in coronavirus mask

Photo credit: Kim Kardashian West on Instagram.

Pathak’s concern is that increasing demand for these respirators could cause problems in the future.

“If the supply is limited because of demand in the general population, it can be harder for health professionals to stay safe,” Pathak says.

Though masks and respirators are a smart choice for some people, they aren’t the best way for most people to protect themselves from the coronavirus. It’s better to focus on good hygiene practices, like regularly washing your hands well (with soap and water for at least 20 seconds), disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding people who are sick.



Neha Pathak, MD, WebMD medical editor.

CDC: “Frequently Asked Questions about Personal Protective Equipment,” “Understanding the Difference.”

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