Exorbitantly high levels of air pollution in Beijing have caused a run on face masks as people look for ways to protect themselves from the smog. Demand is so high that, according to news reports, masks are now in short supply in China’s capital.
But, experts said, a closer look at the kinds of masks people get, the way they wear them and the hazards they’re facing suggests that the masks are unlikely to help much.
In fact, images of masked citizens navigating the stress of Beijing highlight the false confidence that people put in face masks in all sorts of situations, including flu outbreaks and operating rooms.
“For so long, people have worn these and believed they are effective,” said Lisa Brosseau, a certified industrial hygienist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. “But I believe they give people a false sense of protecting themselves when they are really not getting much protection.”
The simplest types of face masks available over the counter are surgical masks, much like the ones that doctors wear while operating on patients.
Surgical masks were designed to protect open wounds from germs in the droplets of mucus that come out of doctors’ mouths when they cough, sneeze and breathe. Masks were never intended to protect the people wearing them, though research shows they may help slow the spread of illnesses, at least a little bit.
In a study published last year in the journal PLOS Pathogens, for example, face masks reduced the amount of influenza virus shed into the air by more than two-thirds.
That might be enough to lower the chances of giving the flu to others, said study author Donald Milton, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
But wearing a surgical mask is not going to eliminate the risk of inhaling unwanted viruses and air pollution. Besides the particles that get through the mask’s filter, surgical masks tend to be loose fitting, allowing contaminated air to flow in around the sides.