The Science of Why Face Masks Work

Chances are that you have, over the past two and a half years, become very familiar with buying and wearing face masks in Australia. The use of these essential personal protective equipment (PPE) items, formerly used only in clinical and certain other hazardous workplace environments, has become a very routine aspect of balancing the need for protection with carrying on with everyday life during COVID-19.

But do we need to keep wearing them? And do they work?

Why Do We Need to Wear Face Masks?


Health professionals, including doctors, surgeons, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, and even veterinarians have long worn face masks as routine practice for essential infection control. This is because they, in their day-to-day work, are often exposed to infectious particles from their patients’ noses and mouths. These infectious particles, containing bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms, can be very easily passed between people via coughing, sneezing, bleeding, vomiting, and even just via taking.

These particles may be infectious and include those that are bacteria in the saliva or the blood, breathable viral particles, and even infectious tissue particles (which easily become airborne or aerosolized from the nose or mouth by spattering due to coughing, sneezing, shouting, talking, and during medical or dental examinations).

The general population can also transmit airborne bacteria and viruses that cause infection in the community in the same way – via droplets by sneezing, coughing, and even just by talking to each other. These particles can spread directly between people through droplets and the air or be transmitted via surfaces (e.g. door handles, shopping trolleys, etc).

This is how diseases like influenza, the common cold, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, mumps, tuberculosis, meningitis, and COVID-19 spread.

Along with hand washing and distancing, wearing a face mask helps us to reduce the risk of passing on or acquiring these airborne viruses or bacteria.

What Does Science Say?

Face masks have been proven to provide a very effective physical barrier to the particles that carry viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microorganisms. When they are properly worn, they’re also an effective way to help minimise the risks of transmitting and contracting COVID-19.

COVID-19 transmission almost always happens due to airborne respiratory droplets which are released when an infected person talks, shouts, sings, blows their nose, and even more so if they cough or sneeze.

Did you know? Sneeze droplets can travel 10 metres!

The Australian Medical Association and State Health Departments base their Australian face mask recommendations on a wealth of scientific research and support that we keep wearing them where suitable to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 within the community. This is especially important if you are experiencing any symptoms, however mild, or if you have been exposed to anyone with COVID-19. While face masks certainly protect the wearer, they are most effective for protecting others.

Choose high-quality face masks in Australia – whether you choose a disposable surgical mask, a P2/N95 mask, or a washable, reusable mask, do your bit to protect others – especially on public transport, where mask mandates are still in place.

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