Fact check: Ear loop masks — even homemade cloth masks — offer protection against COVID-19
The claim: Nonrespirator ear loop masks do not protect people against coronavirus, and it is explicitly stated on the packaging of masks
As mask-wearing has become a common method to stop the spread of COVID-19, posts circulating online claim disposable ear loop masks do not provide any protection against the virus.
A May 21 Facebook post shows a picture of a box of the disposable masks, where the warning label cautions, “THIS PRODUCT IS AN EAR LOOP MASK. THIS PRODUCT IS NOT A RESPIRATOR AND WILL NOT PROVIDE ANY PROTECTION AGAINST COVID-19(CORONAVIRUS) OR OTHER VIRUSES OR CONTAMINANTS.”
The caption reads, “When you shame people for not wearing masks but then read the side of the box of the masks you spent $25.00 on.” The user who shared the post did not respond to USA TODAY for comment.
The post has since been widely shared, in several variations. Some posts include only the photo of the box's label. In other cases, select words of the warning label are highlighted.
As businesses begin to reopen across the nation, controversy surrounding mask requirements has created a challenging environment for business owners, and false claims about masks have only continued.
Fact check:What's true and what's false about coronavirus?
Are cloth face coverings effective?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that COVID-19 spreads mainly through respiratory droplets when someone who is infected coughs, sneezes or talks, making cloth masks an effective way to lessen the transmission of the coronavirus.
The CDC recommends cloth face coverings be worn in public areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
But the CDC does note, “A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.” By wearing a cloth covering in public, the spread of the virus can be slowed by lessening the transmission to others.
More:Should you wear a face mask to the gym? A look at the debate
Lisa Maragakis, an expert in infection prevention at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says in an FAQ on coronavirus and masks that while cloth masks are not medical-grade, they may be helpful in nonpatient settings to “contain coughs and to remind people to not touch their face, but they are not suitable for providing medical care to patients.”
Maragakis also says that while cloth masks are used to guard against the spread of COVID-19, the masks do no have a tight seal and are made of different materials.
The Mayo Clinic says cloth masks can be effective because surgical and N95 masks are in short supply and should be reserved for health care workers, while cloth masks are easy to find and can be washed and reused. Cloth masks are used specifically in areas of “significant community-based transmission,” but the clinic cautions a mask should not be touched while being worn, and hands should be washed immediately after removing a mask.
Fact check:No, N95 filters are not too large to stop COVID-19 particles
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, a scientific journal, suggests that homemade masks can dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19 if enough people wear them in public settings.
"It is also possible that this low-level technology, including homemade masks, could reduce the severe global economic impact of COVID-19, which has the potential to cause billions of people to suffer shortened life expectancy because of a reduced standard of living," the study reads.
A key message from the study on the widespread adoption of face masks is "my mask protects you, your mask protects me."
Fact check:Disposable masks should always be worn colored-side-out
Commercial vs. homemade cloth masks
Public health officials have recommended that people craft their own masks when faced with mask shortages. While it's unclear how much protection homemade masks offer, studies suggest a homemade mask is better than no protection.
A 2010 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that tested the effectiveness of materials such as sweatshirts, scarves and towels found that sweatshirts offered slightly more protection than T-shirts. Cotton towels were also found to be more protective than scarves.
In a 2013 study examining homemade masks compared to commercial face masks in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, researchers concluded that both commercial masks and homemade masks provided protection, but the surgical masks were three times more effective in blocking transmission.
“Our findings suggest that a homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals, but it would be better than no protection,” the study reads.
The CDC has also released instructions on creating homemade masks.
“Simple cloth face coverings can be made at home and may help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the site reads.
In an interview with NPR, William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said “Homemade masks, shawls, scarves and anything that you can conjure up at home might well be a good idea.” He noted while it is not clear how much protection homemade masks can offer, any bit of protection would help.
More:55 retailers selling face masks online: Old Navy, Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and more
Our rating: Partly false
The claim that nonrespirator ear loop masks are ineffective at protecting against the spread of COVID-19 is rated PARTLY FALSE based on our research. It is true that ear loop masks do not protect the wearer from COVID-19. But it is false to say they offer no protection. They are worn to protect others from the virus and help limit the spread in public settings. The warning on the packaging of the masks does not imply that the masks do not slow the spread of the disease, but rather, that the mask does not protect the wearer.
Our fact-check sources:
- CDC, About Cloth Face Coverings
- Johns Hopkins Medicine, Coronavirus Face Masks & Protection FAQs
- Mayo Clinic, COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer?
- Proceedings of the Royal Society A, A modelling framework to assess the likely effectiveness of facemasks in combination with ‘lock-down’ in managing the COVID-19 pandemic
- The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Simple Respiratory Protection—Evaluation of the Filtration Performance of Cloth Masks and Common Fabric Materials Against 20–1000 nm Size Particles
- Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?
- CDC, How to Make Cloth Face Coverings
- NPR, "Should We All Be Wearing Masks in Public? Health Experts Revisit The Question"
Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.
Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.