6 Things That We Learned About Wearing Masks This Year

Photo: Getty Images / Anastasiia Korotkova
Keys, phone, wallet, mask—our heading-out checklist gained a new addition in 2020, and it's gonna be there for a while. Most went "from why would we wear masks" to buying masks in bulk, sometimes coordinating them to their outfits. With brands like Athleta and Uniqlo releasing face masks, the global reusable face mask market is projected to reach $19.2 billion by the end of 2020—up from about $1.3 million in 2019.

This explosion in mask usage has come with a bit of a learning curve. Below, you'll find six things we learned about COVID-19 and masks this year, from how masks affect your immune system to how to beat maskne.

Experts In This Article

6 COVID-19 mask facts we learned this year

1. Masks are super effective at combatting the spread of COVID-19

Despite some initial back-and-forth on the efficacy of masks from health officials, it quickly became clear that mask-wearing is not only effective at hindering the spread of COVID-19—it's essential. A meta-analysis published in the Lancet medical journal in June examined the various studies about how masks impacted the spread of viruses and found that mask-wearing resulted in an 80 to 85 percent reduction in transmission. “There have been other studies as well,” says Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. “We are continually accumulating more data to suggest that masks are beneficial.” And even though reusable cloth masks aren't as effective as surgical and N95 masks, they're still incredibly usefulbetween 94 and 96 percent effective.

2. You should still wear a mask even after you get the vaccine

Even once you get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, you won't be immune right away. “It does take time for the body to develop immunity after the vaccine has been received,” says Suzanne Pham, MD, FAAP, medical director of the COVID-19 response team at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Scientists are also uncertain whether those vaccinated against COVID-19 can catch the virus and pass it to others without ever getting sick themselves. So mask-wearing, along with other safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, will still be necessary as vaccines continue to rollout. "So distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, those will need to remain,” Dr. Pham says.

Learn more about the ins-and-outs of vaccines here:

3. Wearing a mask does not weaken your immune system

Masks don't just lessen your chances of catching COVID-19, they also diminish your exposure to other airborne pathogens. This has left some wondering if their immune systems are weakening as the result of limited exposure.

There is no scientific basis for the argument that social distancing and masks weaken our immune systems,” says Rebecca Dutch, PhD, a virologist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine. “While these behaviors reduce our exposure to some pathogens, they do not completely eliminate our exposure to airborne pathogens (though they do reduce it, which is why we are wearing them to reduce risk from SARS-CoV-2), and masks and distancing do little to change our exposure to pathogens in food, for example."

Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, adds that no matter how much you're exposed to pathogens, “you don’t form an immune response to something without becoming infected by it.” So wearing a mask now doesn't mean you'll be more susceptible to illnesses once you stop.

4. Maskne is a thing (and there are ways to prevent it)

"Reports of mask-related irritation and 'maskne'—acne caused from the mechanical friction of fabric rubbing against the face—are rampant," says Chaneve Jeanniton, MD, a board-certified oculofacial plastic surgeon and founder of epi.logic skin care. "As we are all experiencing, masks create a warm, moist environment on our skin which can set us up for issues with congestion, acne, and even inflammatory rashes."

She says the best way to beat this is by pairing down your skin routine. "Think gentle cleansers and light hydration. Steer clear of harsh scrubs, heavy-duty exfoliants, and thick creams," she says. "Prioritize ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe, and niacinamide to soothe stressed skin and break the cycle of irritation and reactivity."

Watch the below video to learn more about treating maskne:

5. Smiling isn't the only nonverbal way signal emotions

I couldn't tell you how many times I've smiled at strangers with my mask on to only realize that they probably couldn't tell I was smiling and I looked like I was just creepily starring at them. Luckily, smiling isn't the only way to convey emotion. “Eyebrows are very expressive,” says body-language expert Blanca Cobb, MS.  “When someone sees somebody they recognize and are happy, they’ll do what we call an ‘eyebrow flash,’ where their eyebrows lift for a couple of seconds, making their eyes look bigger.”

Additionally, Cobb says the whole body helps us convey emotion, not just our face. Everything from relaxed shoulders to crossed arms indicates how we're feeling. “Even though you’re six feet from someone, you can get a sense of whether they want to talk to you or not by looking at their body orientation,” says Cobb.

6. We won't be wearing masks forever

Although masks have become an integral part of our lives, it won't be like this forever. "As long as we have high disease transmission we will be in masks," says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, a microbiologist and infectious disease epidemiologist. She anticipates that we'll still be wearing masks through the vaccination period.

Watch Rivera share more about when she thinks the pandemic will end: 

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