Do face masks protect against coronavirus?

What you need to know.

Man and woman wearing face masks in crowd of people.

Don’t rely on a face mask to protect you from coronavirus or other cold and flu bugs.

Reports of pharmacies and supermarkets running out of face masks have hit the headlines in recent weeks. But don’t worry if you haven’t got one. The masks won’t provide protection against coronavirus, Ministry of Health director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.

Ordinary paper or dust masks don’t stop fine particles. While the N95 mask (also called a “P2 mask”) does have a respirator that filters fine particles from the air, the masks will only provide some protection if they’re close-fitting enough to create a seal around your face. If they fail to do that, they’re useless.

Health authorities also point out viruses can contaminate the exterior of a face mask. This means if anyone removes or touches a mask that’s been infected and forgets to wash their hands, they risk catching the virus.

Reducing risk

To reduce your risk of catching or spreading airborne viruses, the Ministry of Health recommends:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Practicing rigorous hand hygiene, which means washing hands thoroughly, especially after contact with ill people or their environment.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and washing hands.

Travellers who become sick within a month of their arrival in New Zealand should contact their doctor or Healthline (0800 611 116).

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that include the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In January, officials in China identified a new coronavirus called novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.

More on coronavirus

More on coronavirus

Crowd of people walking.

More on coronavirus

Read our latest articles on the Covid-19 pandemic. Got a consumer-related question about coronavirus? Email us at info@consumer.org.nz and we'll do our best to help.

Member comments

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Rod S.
28 Mar 2020
Who do masks protect?

Wearing a mask will lessen your ability to infect others. It will not necessarily protect you from others.

Lynsie Anne M.
28 Mar 2020
Mask best practice

If you don't wear and treat a mask properly the risk of contamination is much worse than not wearing one.
Main point- once you have it on NEVER TOUCH IT, the outside is teeming with bugs! If it is a one use mask, when you are done with it , remove my grabbing one earpiece and drop it in the rubbish then WASH YOUR HANDS.
If it is a non disposable mask (and why would you have one of these) remove it without touching the mouth/nose area and immediately drop it in a bucket or similar. Wash your hands before touching the tap then douse the mask in hot water and soap, soak, wash, and put to dry.
If you can't treat a mask like this then don't wear one. The above is mask rules 101.

David C.
13 Feb 2020
Masks as good habit makers?

While an ill-fitting mask is a bit pointless, even that can help stop habits, like touching your mouth or nose, that are good ways to pick up infections.

Karen L.
21 Mar 2020
Masks

After a short time, masks have absorbed moisture from your breath and this provides a nice breeding ground for all kinds of bugs - bacterial and viral.

Valerie B.
28 Mar 2020
Masks

Bacteria may "breed" in the moisture of a face mask, but a virus can't. They need to come in contact with the cells of a particular host in order to replicate.