"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.)
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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