The main myths and the truth about mouth-nose masks

The main myths and the truth about mouth-nose masks

Do homemade masks offer protection against the corona virus or do they even increase the risk of infection? How effective is cleaning in the microwave?

© Photo: dpa / Jörd Carstensen
Mouth-to-nose coverage is now mandatory in the Berlin underground.

So now. As the last federal state, Bremen also introduced a mask requirement on Wednesday. All over the country, citizens are now obliged to a mouth-nose covering to wear, at least in public transport or in shops. There are many myths surrounding the face masks – until recently politicians and scientists insisted that they were of no use in the fight against Covid-19. What’s right, what’s wrong?

Myth one: masks offer no protection against the virus

When it comes to protecting the mask wearer from infection, this myth is true: simple mouth-nose covers do not protect the wearer, or only to a very small extent, against a corona infection. Fine droplets hanging in the air can still be inhaled through the side openings.

Only professional respirators with filters and valves, characterized by the specifications FFP-2 and FFP-3, protect against a virus infection. But these are currently in short supply and are urgently needed in hospitals – just like the simple surgical masks.

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However, what self-sewing mouth-nose covers are likely to achieve is third-party protection. Larger droplets that are expelled when coughing, sneezing or speaking end up directly in the fabric. The risk of infection for people in the vicinity of the mask wearer is therefore lower. This effect has been known for a long time – at least for the medical mouth-nose masks: it is the reason why surgeons wear surgical masks.

Charité virologist and Corona virus expert Christian Drosten said in his NDR podcast, there are “initial evidence” for the external protection of self-made mouth-nose masks, which are also called “community masks”. That presupposes that “everyone, everyone, everyone in society” must wear the masks.

Drosten quoted, among other things a study from Hong Kongthat was published in Nature magazine. She had found that patients who wore simple mouth-nose protection could not find any droplets that transmit the virus in the air in their rooms. The study was conducted prior to the advent of SARS-CoV-2 and the patients had normal cold coronaviruses and the influenza virus.

So wearing a mask can help slow the spread of Covid-19 in the population by protecting others. The more they wear, the more effective this protection is. This is especially true when several people are together in a closed space, for example in public transport, in shops or at work.

Myth two: masks actually increase the risk of infection

For a long time Masks in Germany not only as senseless, but even as dangerous: The porters could be in false security and disregard important hygiene measures and distance rules. If the mask fits poorly, if you touch your face more often, if it is not cleaned thoroughly, it is a potential source of infection.

All of these concerns are justified. Basically, a mask only protects if it is used correctly. The Robert Koch Institute has recommended since the beginning of April that the general population should also wear a mouth and nose covering “in certain situations in public space”. However, self-isolation in the event of illness, regular hand washing, cough and sneeze labels and keeping a distance of at least 1.5 meters are the most important measures in the fight against Covid-19.

A danger from wearing a mask is therefore a psychological effect: mask wearers must be aware that the mask does not protect them from infection. You must continue to follow all applicable rules. If they do not, the risk of infection increases.

The second danger is mishandling, which could result in an infection. Community masks wearers should follow several rules to ensure that the masks are safe: The mouth-nose covering must be worn close over the mouth and nose, and the penetration of air on the sides should be minimized. Firmly woven fabrics are better for making a mask than lightly woven ones.

It should not be plucked as hands on the face increase the risk of infection. When putting on the mask, care should be taken that it is not contaminated from the inside. The hands must be washed thoroughly.

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If the mask is damp, it should be removed and replaced immediately. The outside of the mask should not be touched by the hands as it may contain pathogens. Hands should be washed thoroughly after weaning.

After removal, it should be sealed airtight in a bag, for example, or washed immediately. It should only be kept for a short period of time to prevent mold growth. The question of how to properly clean the mask takes us to the next myth.

Myth three: masks cannot be cleaned properly

Mouth-nose masks and FFP masks are actually disposable items, they should be disposed of after use. But since there is an acute shortage of masks in Germany and more and more people are sewing masks themselves, it is important to get creative with the sterilization of the masks.

Viruses die at hot temperatures. Beyond 60 or 70 degrees Celsius, the new corona virus cannot stand it either. The Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices recommends to wash masks after a single use ideally at 95 degrees, but at least at 60 degrees and then to dry completely.

However, this is not possible, for example, if there is a metal bracket in the masks that bends during washing. Christian Drosten recommends putting fabric masks in the oven at 70 degrees until they are dry – if the fabric can take it. Drosten also names ironing as an option to clean a mask.

The domestic microwave is also an option: Researchers in the United States had heated protective masks along with vessels with water in a commercially available microwave. They wanted to use it to generate water vapor that cleans the mask. The result: steam sterilization in the microwave hardly damaged the masks and did not significantly reduce the filter effect.

However, care must be taken with protective masks in which metal is installed. The metal parts can cause lightning or sparking in the microwave.

Myth four: there are not enough masks to provide everyone with

This myth is a reality – and the main reason why politicians and institutions like the RKI have long advised against wearing a mask. Due to the sudden exceptional situation, there is a lack of masks worldwide. Even in German hospitals and care facilities, there are still too few medical masks.

If a general mask requirement had been announced too early, there would have been an even bigger run on urgently needed protective masks. Even now there is a dilemma that citizens are obliged to wear masks that do not exist. This is also the reason why in the decision of the federal and state governments masks were only “strongly recommended”, as Angela Merkel confirmed this week.

In the meantime, many have started sewing and selling masks themselves. Scarves or buffs are also allowed as mouth-nose covers. Political hope now seems to be enough to keep private individuals from buying medical masks.


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