Debunking 10 Common Face Mask Myths

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
A light-skinned woman with short pink hair wears a face mask and heart-shaped sunglasses.
© Lucas Ottone / Stocksy United

Ever since the governor’s mask mandate was enacted on July 7 in Washington, a lot of questions about face masks have been swirling around the internet. 

Here are 10 myths about face masks that you shouldn’t believe — and why it’s so important to wear a mask. 

Myth: Masks don't offer protection against COVID-19
Fact: Masks can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially if worn by an infected person

Information about the pandemic can seem confusing and even contradictory since the virus is new and doctors and researchers have had to scramble to learn about it. That means that sometimes they say one thing but then learn otherwise.

This happened at the beginning of the pandemic when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t recommend wearing masks because they thought they weren’t helpful. Now, we know differently. 

“If you’re wearing a mask, some studies show 75% of respiratory droplets will be blocked if you’re exposed to someone who’s sick,” says Dr. Kathryn Harris, associate medical director of primary care at UW Medical Center – Northwest. 

Need more proof that masks work? Take this example of two hairstylists who had COVID-19 when they helped 139 customers. The stylists and customers all wore face masks, and none of the customers ended up getting sick — which is pretty amazing when you think about how close someone has to be to cut your hair.

Myth: Gaiters, bandanas and N95 masks are bad
Fact: The best mask for you depends on the situation

With all the new research studies coming out about mask usage to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there can be some conflicting and confusing information. 

For example, you may have read that bandanas or neck gaiters pulled up over the face aren’t protective enough, or that N95 masks are bad.

First, when it comes to neck gaiters or bandanas, they may not be as effective as cloth face masks, but they’re better than wearing nothing. For more protection, make sure the one you wear has at least two layers of fabric. 

As far as N95 masks go, some are great options. But there’s one catch: You want to make sure the N95 mask you pick doesn’t have a vent or valve.

“Vented N95 masks don’t block the exhalation, so you’re just protecting yourself, not others. They aren’t recommended for protecting against COVID-19,” Harris says. 

‘Not blocking the exhalation’ means that when you breathe out you’re blowing your germs everywhere — which is a gross thing to do during a pandemic.

Note that some masks, even if they aren’t classified as N95 masks, have valves, and some N95 masks don’t have valves. 

Vented masks are great for things like blocking out wildfire smoke and particulates, but you should opt for a cloth mask instead to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Myth: Wearing a mask can cause carbon dioxide (CO2) poisoning
Fact: Wearing a face mask is safe 

There’s a rumor going around that wearing a mask causes CO2 buildup and poisoning. While it’s true that you breathe out CO2, it’s not at all true that wearing a mask puts you in any danger from CO2 poisoning.

“Cloth masks are designed for breathability. Even for people who have lung disease, just a cloth mask is not going to cause retention of CO2,” says Dr. Coralynn Sack, a pulmonologist who treats patients who have lung disease. 

The only time a mask might cause minimal CO2 retention is if someone with severe lung disease wears an N95 mask, Sack says. 

Myth: People with asthma or a lung condition shouldn’t wear a mask
Fact: People with either of these conditions should definitely wear a mask

It may seem like wearing a cloth mask would make breathing harder for people who already have a lung condition, but that just isn’t true, Sack says.

“I have lots of patients with chronic lung disease who are able to wear cloth masks without difficulty,” she says.

Because people with lung conditions are at higher risk for complications or worse illness from COVID-19, it’s extra important for them to wear a mask in public indoor spaces and outside when staying 6 feet away from others isn’t possible.

Still, if you’ve experienced trouble breathing while wearing a mask, you should talk about it with your doctor.

Myth: It’s dangerous to wear a mask when exercising
Fact: Exercising with a mask on is safe, but might feel uncomfortable

If you’ve tried exercising in a mask, you know how it can make you feel like you’re not getting enough air. While this can be scary, exercising while masked up isn’t dangerous, Sack says.

“It’s not going to make you have low oxygen or high CO2,” she says. 

The only time wearing a mask while working out might not be safe is in people who have serious heart or lung disease, Harris says. That’s because exercise makes someone’s heart rate increase, and wearing a mask makes breathing take a little more effort, which also increases heart rate.

While people aren’t required to wear a mask while doing vigorous exercise outside, such as running or bicycling, it’s important to wear a mask if you’re doing something more moderately active and can’t stay physically distant from others, like taking a walk at a busy park. 

Myth: Only people who are sick should wear masks
Fact: Wear a mask even if you feel fine

It’s actually extremely important for people who don’t have COVID-19 symptoms to wear a mask in public indoor spaces and outside when they can’t physically distance. 

Why? Because current best estimates from the CDC show that 40% of people infected with COVID-19 never develop symptoms (which means they’re asymptomatic). CDC estimates also show that, on average, it takes six days after exposure to the virus for symptoms to show up. 

“We know that in people who get sick, they’re shedding the most virus in the prodromal phase, just before they get symptoms. Most patients are most infectious when they don’t know they have it,” Harris explains.

Wearing a mask is important because, even though you may feel fine, you could be sick, and if you aren’t masked up you could spread the virus to people unknowingly. 

Myth: Wearing a mask means you don’t have to practice physical distancing
Fact: Distancing is still important to preventing the spread of COVID-19

While wearing a mask prevents about 75% of respiratory droplets you produce from getting into the air, Harris says, doctors don’t fully know how much masks protect against smaller particles that could still contain the virus. 

While cloth face masks offer protection against being exposed to the virus and exposing others, wearing one isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get exposed, especially if you’re in close proximity (less than 6 feet away) from someone who has the virus. 

To be as safe as possible, it’s still important to maintain physical distance whenever you can, and to regularly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds each time. 

Myth: People who have already had COVID-19 don’t need to wear masks
Fact: If these people have immunity, it might not last long

The hard truth is that just because someone has already had COVID-19 doesn’t mean they’re immune from getting it again. Researchers know that people who get the virus develop antibodies that, in theory, will protect them if they got exposed to the virus again. But no one knows if those antibodies would be protective long term.   

Another issue is that some people continue to test positive for the virus long after they have seemingly recovered from it, Harris says. 

“We don’t know how infectious they are or if they are,” she says, meaning that someone could get COVID-19, recover, but possibly still be able to spread the virus to others. Because of this, it’s important for everyone, even people who have already been sick, to wear a mask. 

Myth: Masks only protect others, not the wearer
Fact: Masks protect both the wearer and everyone around them

Initially, researchers thought cloth face masks only prevented the wearer from infecting people around them but didn’t actually protect the wearer. However, now scientists are starting to understand that the masks serve an important purpose for the wearer: decreasing how much virus they’re exposed to.

If you’re wearing a mask and are near someone who’s sick, your mask will prevent a significant amount of droplets from the sick person from getting in your nose and mouth. 

“The amount of virus you get may correlate to how ill you get. Even if someone cuts down exposure but doesn’t avoid it, their illness may be milder,” Harris explains. 

For your mask to be the most protective, make sure it has several layers of cloth to act as a barrier. 

Myth: You don’t have to wear a mask if you’re outside
Fact: You do if you can’t stay 6 feet away

Outdoors, droplets dissipate more quickly than they do indoors, Harris said, so if you’re able to stay far away from other people at all times, it may not be necessary to wear a mask.

However, if you’re outside and can’t stay at least 6 feet away from others, wearing a mask is important to protect yourself and the people around you. 

The bottom line

Masks are safe and effective. If you’re indoors in a public space, you should definitely wear a mask. If you’re outside, wearing a mask is still important if you can’t stay at least 6 feet away from other people. 

There may not be a lot we can control about the pandemic, and that can feel unsettling. But one thing we can control is how we protect ourselves and others, and mask-wearing is a key part of that.