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Experts say it’s better if everyone wears a mask, but your mask can help protect you from COVID-19. Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images
  • Wearing a face mask lowers your risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, even if you’re the only mask wearer in the crowd.
  • Keep in mind: You need the right mask and the right fit.
  • Experts say vaccinations plus community mask wearing provide better protection.

Studies have shown that when mask wearing in public is widespread, there’s substantially lower community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

One reason for this is that wearing a mask helps protect others.

But what happens when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t wearing masks?

Your mask still helps protect you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, a review article published earlier this year in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found “compelling data” to demonstrate the effectiveness of mask wearing in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in general as well as the protection for the mask wearers.

The JAMA study authors went on to say that the overall community benefit of wearing masks has to do with their ability to limit both exhalation and inhalation of virus particles.

Dr. Jan K. Carney is the associate dean for public health and health policy and a professor of medicine at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

“Right now, there are high levels of COVID-19 spread in most U.S. communities,” Carney told Healthline.

“COVID-19 spreads between people through larger respiratory droplets and smaller aerosols,” she explained. “Masks protect others by blocking airborne droplets when [those with an infection] — even if they don’t have symptoms — exhale, speak, cough, or sneeze. They also protect the mask wearer, providing personal protection.”

Dr. Ashley Lipps, an infectious disease physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees that wearing a mask, even when others aren’t, offers some level of protection.

“Wearing a mask can help protect the wearer by reducing the amount of virus that you breathe in and are exposed to,” Lipps told Healthline.

“Masks work best when everyone in a room or space wears one. And although outdoor activities are generally much safer than indoor ones, masks should be worn outdoors in crowded settings where physical distancing is not possible,” she added.

“The CDC has great information about different types of masks, especially cloth and disposable masks. Wearing bandanas, plastic face shields, or masks with valves are not recommended, as we cannot be sure they will effectively protect us or others,” said Carney.

Lipps explained that well-fitted N95 medical masks offer the best protection.

“Cloth masks and surgical masks come next but can vary depending on the fit around the face and type of material used,” said Lipps.

Efficacy varies a lot depending on the type and fit of mask used, said Lipps, who offered these suggestions:

  • Your mask should fit snugly over your nose and mouth, without any gaps on the side or top.
  • The performance of disposable surgical masks can be improved by using the knot and tuck technique, which allows for a tighter seal across the face.
  • Cloth masks should be made of multiple layers of tightly woven fabric and should not have any exhalation valves or vents.
  • Wearing a cloth mask over a disposable surgical mask can result in better protection than either used alone.

Carney recommends checking the fit of your mask in a mirror.

“Say a few sentences and watch to see if your mask slips off your nose or up over your chin. Do you have to keep putting it back in place? Do you feel a lot of air escaping the top or sides? Your mask may be too small or too large or not be a great fit,” advised Carney.

Carney noted that mask wearing is also important for children.

“The CDC and major health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal masking (students, teachers, staff, visitors) in schools, as children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines at a time when the Delta variant is widely circulating,” said Carney.

“I think that the best masks are the ones kids will wear. And kids must be able to wear them for the entire school day indoors, from bus ride to school and then on the bus back home again,” she added.

Lipps and Carney agree that vaccination is still the best defense against COVID-19.

Most communities have convenient locations for people not yet able to get their shots,” said Carney.

“Not surprisingly, it makes sense that when everyone masks indoors, everyone is more protected. A combination of evidence-based prevention approaches — vaccinations, indoor masking, physical distancing, and good handwashing hygiene — will help us live our lives as fully and safely as possible in the weeks and months ahead,” said Carney.