PSA: Wearing a Mask Does Not Give You Permission To Ignore Social Distancing

In the age of COVID-19, wearing a mask is one of the most important things you can do to keep yourself—and others—protected from the virus. But while covering your face may make you feel like you've got on safety armor that allows you to get close to other people, pros say that isn't actually the case. Even if you've got a mask on, you still need to maintain the golden social distancing rule of staying six feet apart.

"If you're in a public setting with strangers, like a grocery store, and there's potential that you may come in contact with multiple people that you're not familiar with... then it is proper to both socially distance and wear a mask at the same time," says Shanina Knighton, PhD, RN. "When it comes down to social distancing and mask use, if you're six feet apart, you run a lesser chance of coming in contact with those droplets. And when you're doing both if you do come in contact with some of those droplets, your nose and my mouth can be protected." (Though it's important to remember that cloth and paper masks are mainly worn to curb your droplet spread from reaching others.)

Experts In This Article
  • Seema Sarin, MD, Seema Sarin, MD, is a board certified internal medicine physician and the director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health. She focuses on evidence-based lifestyle medicine and the prevention of chronic disease.
  • Shanina C. Knighton, PhD, RN, Dr. Knighton is an instructor and KL2 Scholar at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western University. She has done extensive research on infection prevention and gerontology.

Masks are great—and undoubtedly important—but they're not 100 percent effective. "A mask on its own isn't sufficient, because it doesn't provide 100 percent protection," says Dr. Knighton. "People have this perception that because they have a mask on, droplets can't travel through the mask, but they can. The fact that you can breathe through it tells you that something can come in through that barrier, and COVID droplets are small enough that they would still be able to travel through the mask."  Studies have found that different mask materials offer different levels of protection. In fact, researchers from Florida Atlantic University called out stitched-quilting fabric masks as the best DIY option compared to folded handkerchiefs and cone-style masks—but there's still no such thing as total protection from a mask.

"Now that we understand that we can transmit the virus even if we're asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, your respiratory droplets can leave the mask [even if you don't realize you're sick], which is why it's still important to make sure you maintain that six feet of distance between you," says Seema Sarin, MD, director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health.

And as for where that "six feet" number comes from? "Droplets travel out of your mouth—if you sneeze or even when you're just regularly talking—six feet is how far they're able to travel," says Dr. Knighton. "And now that we know that someone can sneeze and those droplets can linger in the air, then six feet apart means that if someone accidentally sneezes, if you're six feet apart you lessen the chance of being able to fall into their 'sneeze storm' of droplets that are suspended in the air for a certain period of time."

The bottom line: Wear a mask and stay six feet apart. The good news is there are plenty of cute, breathable options to keep you safe and covered all summer.

Dealing with skin issues from wearing a mask 24/7? This video can help you deal: 

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