Last Updated April 8, 2020
There is a lot of conflicting information right now about how helpful masks are (or aren't) in preventing the spread of COVID-19. We break down the official statements.
What are the different kind of face masks?
The Government of Alberta's Stop the Spread resources divide masks into two kinds: Medical, and Non-Medical.
Medical masks include N95 masks and surgical or procedure masks. N95 masks protect from exposure to biological aerosols that may contain viruses or bacteria. They are generally only required during specific, high-risk medical procedures.
Wearing a non-medical mask, such as a homemade cloth mask, has not been proven to protect the person wearing it. However, it may be helpful in protecting others around you.
Stop The Spread also stresses that face coverings should only be used in addition to other steps to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. These other steps include washing your hands, practicing social distancing, obeying public health orders, and self isolating. For more information we have collected the Alberta Government's Fact Sheets on how to protect yourself here.
When using non-medical masks, you should take added precautions:
- avoid touching your face mask while using it
- change a cloth mask as soon as it gets damp or soiled
- put it directly into the washing machine or a bag that can be emptied into the washing machine and then disposed of
- cloth masks can be laundered with other items using a hot cycle, and then dried thoroughly.
- non-medical masks that cannot be washed should be discarded and replaced as soon as they get damp, soiled or crumpled
- dispose of masks properly in a lined garbage bin
- don't leave discarded masks in shopping carts, on the ground, etc.
Can you depend on a non-medical mask to protect you?
The short answer according to Health Canada is: No. The federal ministry has made some very clear comments on the use of non-medical masks:
These types of masks may not be effective in blocking virus particles that may be transmitted by coughing, sneezing or certain medical procedures. They do not provide complete protection from the coronavirus because of a potential loose fit and the materials used.
The reasons for this is because of the quality of the non-medical mask materials.
- they have not been tested to recognized standards
- they may not provide complete protection against virus-sized particles
- the edges are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth
- the fabrics are not the same as used in surgical masks or respirators
- they can be difficult to breathe through and can prevent you from getting the required amount of oxygen needed by your body
- they may require frequent adjustment, increasing the amount of times your hands come into contact with your face and increasing the probability of infection
Should I be wearing a mask at all?
- If you are a healthy individual, the use of a mask is not recommended for preventing the spread of COVID-19
- Wearing a mask when you are not ill may give a false sense of security
- There is a potential risk of infection with improper mask use and disposal
- They also need to be changed frequently
- However, your health care provider may recommend you wear a mask if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 while you are seeking or waiting for care. In this instance, masks are an appropriate part of infection prevention and control measures. The mask acts as a barrier and helps stop the tiny droplets from spreading you when you cough or sneeze.