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Infectious Diseases

Updated 15 June 2020

Masks could help reduce Covid-19 spread and prevent a second wave

As we're questioning whether masks are really protecting us, new research suggests that they have an important role to play in reducing the R-naught of infections.

  • As fears of a second Covid-19 wave grow, research shows that masks may help prevent it
  • Even simple fabric masks significantly reduce infection risk
  • It's important not only to protect yourself, but also to protect others


The use of facemasks is now mandatory for all South Africans whenever you venture outside, whether it is for essential errands, work or exercise

The World Health Organization (WHO) stated early during the outbreak that masks are only necessary for those who cough and sneeze in order to help reduce spreading respiratory droplets, the updated guide now distinguishes firmly between medical and non-medical (fabric) masks and states that they should be worn by all to help reduce the risk of infection.

Now, a new modelling study from the Universities of Cambridge and Greenwich suggests that population-wide use of facemasks can reduce the reproduction number (number of further infections per infected person, or the R-naught figure) to 1.0, according to a news release.

Lockdown alone not enough

The study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A suggested that lockdown alone is simply not enough to reach and maintain a reproduction number of 1.0.

According to the researchers, there is extensive literature describing the dynamics of exhalation of virus from infected individuals (e.g. velocity, reach, separation into small and large droplets). This suggests that the virus has the ability to spread from person to person, especially in an indoor setting.

Facemasks can significantly reduce the number of droplets escaping from a person’s mouth or nose, and also reduce the number of viral droplets inhaled from the air, the modelling study suggests.

Reducing R-naught to 1.0 or less

The researchers included several modelling scenarios in their study, which suggested that routine facemask use by 50% or more of the population could ultimately lower the reproduction rate to 1.0 or less, which would make second waves less severe and make it possible for governments to lift strict lockdown measures.

"Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of facemasks by the public," stated lead author, Dr Richard Stutt, from Cambridge University in a press release.

Getting rid of the stigma of masks

Not everyone agrees that wearing facemasks is necessarily safe or effective. The study authors addressed several negative aspects of wearing facemasks in their study. One example is that people believe it may encourage you to accidentally touch your face more as you adjust your mask.

The WHO, in their updated document on facemasks, also took note of the fact that masks may cause people to touch their faces more, causing infection.

There are also several headlines claiming that masks could cause conditions such as hypoxia due to a lack of oxygen. But this fear has been disproven, as a simple homemade fabric mask doesn’t alter the level of oxygen one breathes in.

The researchers want to appeal to the public to reconsider all misconceptions regarding masks. "There is a common perception that wearing a facemask means you consider others a danger," stated Professor John Colvin, coauthor from the University of Greenwich. "In fact, by wearing a mask you are primarily protecting others from yourself."

"Cultural and even political issues may stop people wearing facemasks, so the message needs to be clear: my mask protects you, your mask protects me," he said in the press release.

Are masks enough protection?

A previous literature review mentioned in a Health24 article suggested that while masks do significantly reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection, they still won’t offer enough protection without other measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing.

As fabric masks for non-medical purposes are not standardised or regulated, people may wonder whether their masks are actually making a difference.

But the research team puts the public at ease – as they investigated the varying effectiveness of different masks, the study suggested that even the simplest mask made from a cotton T-shirt can be 90% effective in preventing transmission.

Even if a mask only captures about 50% of the droplets in the air, it would still lessen the risk of infection, the researchers stated. And while respiratory droplets can still enter through the sides of the mask, your own risk is immediately reduced if a person near you is also wearing a mask.

However, according to the WHO, you should still focus on washing your hands and keeping a distance of 2m between you and another person in public, even when wearing a mask.

Do it right

So, even though you might finally realise that a facemask is vital in reducing the spread of Covid-19, there are still things you should remember before you don your mask and head outside. The WHO listed these guidelines for users in a non-medical setting to ensure that facemasks are used correctly:

  • Don’t share masks among family members. Ensure that every member of the household has at least two masks.
  • Wash your hands properly before putting on your mask and before taking it off.
  • When removing the mask, untie it at the back or unhook the earloops – don’t touch the front of your mask near your face and mouth.
  • Wash your mask in hot water and soap after each use.

Be comfortable

  • Test different masks until you find the right fit and level of comfort for your needs.
  • Ensure that your mask fits snugly, yet comfortably to avoid touching your face.
  • Adapt your skincare routine if you are prone to breakouts because of the mask.
  • When exercising, get into the habit of inhaling through your nose – this will reduce dampness and discomfort.
  • If you feel dizzy and breathless while exercising with a mask, adapt your pace, stand still and pull your mask down when there are no other people near you.

READ | Covid-19: Masks and your skin – what you should know 

READ | Why it's even more important to distance while running – the danger is your "breath cloud"

READ | Masks and Covid-19: How, when and where – the latest guidelines

Image credit: Thomas de Luze from Unsplash