Do face masks protect against coronavirus?

What you need to know.

Man and woman wearing face masks in crowd of people.

The debate about face masks and whether you should wear one has got plenty of airtime in recent weeks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health both advise you don’t need to wear one. The exceptions are if you feel unwell or have a job that requires you to be in close contact with people who may have Covid-19.

The evidence

WHO’s latest guidance states that, if you’re healthy, there’s no evidence that wearing a mask when you’re in public settings can prevent infection from respiratory viruses, including Covid-19.

Using a mask can prevent the spread of infectious droplets if you’re sick. There’s also some limited evidence that shows wearing a mask may be beneficial if you have close contact with sick people – for example, someone in your household is ill.

If you’re thinking that wearing a mask can’t do any harm, there are potential downsides.

In its guidance, WHO says using face masks in the community may create a false sense of security and cause people to neglect other measures, such as hand washing and physical distancing.

Viruses can also 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.

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 protection if they’re close-fitting enough to create a seal around your face.

What you should do

To reduce your risk of catching or spreading Covid-19, the Ministry of Health recommends:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoiding touching your face if your hands aren’t clean.
  • Practicing rigorous hand hygiene, which means washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after contact with ill people or their environment.
  • Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or by covering your mouth and nose with disposable tissues, and washing hands. Putting used tissues in the bin immediately.
  • Staying home if you feel unwell.

Call Healthline (0800 358 5453) if you have any symptoms or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

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, 2019-nCoV or Covid-19.

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Crowd of people walking.

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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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Stephanie T.
02 May 2020
don't agree your article!

Don't agree with what you wrote in the article

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.