The Science of Face Masks – Why They Work

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Face masks have never been more sought after than they are right now. This is due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. But wearing face mask protection has long been a routine aspect of healthcare in Australia and masks are normal medical and dental supplies in Australia.

Surgeons, nurses, researchers, scientists, laboratory technicians, pathologists, and dentists (as well as workers in several other industries) have all routinely worn face masks in their day-to-day work for decades.

Why do they do this?

And how does science support mask-wearing in a pandemic?

Why Do Dentists Wear Masks?

Like other health professionals, dentists routinely wear masks for infection control.

In their regular work, dentists and their assistants are potentially exposed to a vast array of infectious particles from their patients’ mouths. These include breathable viral particles (e.g., from colds and flu) to disease-causing blood-borne bacteria, as well as infectious tissues that become aerosolized or otherwise airborne while teeth are being cleaned or drilled.

By wearing a mask to cover their nose and mouth:

  • Your dentist protects you by reducing the risk of them passing on any airborne virus or bacteria they might be carrying.
  • They protect themself from any transmissible infection your breath, saliva, blood, or oral tissues may expose them to via inhalation, spatter, or other means.
  • Wearing a face mask (as well as gloves and other PPE) reduces the likelihood of them transferring biological materials between their patients.

Face Masks for COVID-19 – What the Science Says

Medical associations worldwide advise the use of face masks by the general population to help survive and ultimately overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. The same approach was adopted during the Spanish Flu pandemic of a century ago, although the technology of masks was not as advanced as it is today.

The requirement to wear masks has, in some circles, been met with scepticism and controversy – but it should not be controversial at all!

Modern science supports the use of face masks to prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

There is ever-growing evidence that wearing face masks works by creating a physical barrier to the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus.

Coronavirus transmission occurs primarily via airborne respiratory droplets. These are released by the infected person when they sneeze, cough, shout, or talk. They can travel a remarkable distance (especially in the case of a cough, sneeze, or shout) and if they land in the mouth or nose, or are inhaled into the airways or lungs of a nearby person, that person is highly susceptible to contracting the virus.

Face masks work by creating a physical barrier to these droplets – when worn properly, it becomes much, much more difficult for a person to spread or contract the disease. The spread of coronavirus-containing droplets is dramatically mitigated.

Face Masks

  • Work to prevent COVID-19 transmission
  • Are not uncomfortable – though they may take a little getting used to
  • Allow for healthy, effective breathing
  • Are critical to protecting your community

Types of Face Masks

There are several types of face masks available to be used professionally and by the community during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Single-use Masks – these are disposable surgical masks commonly used for medical procedures and are ideal for preventing COVID-19 transmission. Made from a non-woven, polypropylene layer, they should be purchased from a reputable distributor like a pharmacy, supermarket, or online medical or dental supplies distributor. They require a proper fit over the nose and mouth to be effective. They should meet Australian Standard AS/NZS 1716:2012 or its international equivalent.
  2. Face Shields – disposable, these are not a substitute for face masks but enhance protection in a clinical or other high transmission setting.
  3. Reusable Cloth Masks – these are made from a variety of fabric types. They are unsuitable for clinical use, however, are effective for wearing in the community. To be effective against COVID-19 transmission, they must be made of at least three layers of a breathable but tightly woven fabric (or two layers plus a filter) that blocks light when held to a light source. Ideally, the middle layer will be water-resistant polypropylene or polyester, the outer and inner layers will be high-grade cotton or polycotton. They must fit closely over the nose and mouth and will ideally incorporate a nose wire. They must be washed after each use and be changed if they become damp from extended wear.
  4. Cone-Style Masks – are moulded to fit more comfortably over the face. These are less effective than surgical or cloth masks.
  5. N95, KN95 Respirator Masks – these offer the highest protection against respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. These not only protect others but the wearer as well. They are not recommended for the public but clinical use only.

Face Masks – Their Greatest Power is Protecting Others

While face masks are effective in protecting oneself, their greatest power lies in protecting others. If you are unknowingly infected, by wearing a mask when outside your home you reduce the risk of passing the virus onto other people. This is extremely important as there are people you can come into contact with who are highly vulnerable to the worst effects of the disease due to:

  • Old age
  • Chronic illness
  • Severe underlying health conditions
  • Immune deficiency (e.g., due to autoimmune disease or chemotherapy)
  • Living or working with vulnerable people
  • Unable to be vaccinated due to young age or a medical condition (e.g. on cancer treatment)

In Conclusion

Dentists and other healthcare professionals will always wear surgical face masks in their workplaces to protect their patients as well as themselves. They are an essential component of dental supplies that are used every single day.

In terms of COVID-19, mask-wearing by the general population is extremely important, and even more so with the Delta variant and other emerging variants of the virus, as most people are infectious for at least a few days before they experience symptoms (if they exhibit symptoms at all).

In periods where community transmission is high, wearing a mask is an essential and easy step to take to protect yourself and others. Used alongside physical distancing measures, avoiding large crowds, staying home if you are unwell, and practising hand hygiene, it is our best way through the pandemic until such a time as the population is immunised and/or the disease (hopefully) runs its natural course.

Written by Freelance Writer Alana Wills on behalf of




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