Using Face Masks Properly To Help Avoid Most Kinds Of Yucky Airborne Things

japan face masks photo

Photo by Garry Trinh

Here in Japan, face masks are a common sight. Visitors often wonder why ordinary people wear what appears to be white surgical masks as they take the subway or walk around town. Face masks have evolved as a kind of courtesy: if you have caught a cold, you wear a mask to avoid spreading the germs to others. Also, masks may help people who suffer from allergies.

But how effective are face masks really? Do they help against swine flu?

Now, photos from Mexico show people wearing a simple, blue surgical mask. They could indeed be helpful, to some extent, to avoid the spreading of certain diseases. Go ahead and use them, but I hesitate to say that they will do much to save you if you are too near a person with a full-blown virus infection. Do change the mask often, and take other precations (like carefully washing hands with hot water and soap).

3m8511 3m8210 face masks image

Images of 3M face masks from Mitt & Robe Co.

Effective masks are classified as N95 if they filter small airborne particles, such as virus or allergens. But they are never going to help you avoid 100% of all the pollutants that may or may not be in the air. Also, a general warning is in order: a face mask should only be worn once, for a short period of time. They quickly degrade and are useless against the kind of yucky stuff your immune system is not prepared to handle.

Here in Japan, the non-governmental organization Japan Offspring Fund checked different face masks, and came to the conclusion that the mask 3M 8511 N95 Filter Mask with Exhale Valve was superior to others. Their independent testing showed that many other masks were rather useless against pollen particles or pollutants (JOF did not consider the masks usefulness against virus). Mask makers have started providing nose clips and other simple devices to improve the quality of cheaper cotton masks that are still very popular around Tokyo.

After all, not everyone will ever need a fancy face mask with a Cool Flow™ Exhalation Valve that can cost up to $20 or more. For example, the 2200 Moldex N95 Filter Mask and others offer similar levels of protection (Moldex masks are PVC free). Note that dust masks used on construction sites or in factories are often the best also for avoiding diseases.

CDC offers the following advice:

During a flu pandemic, you can use simple actions to help protect yourself and others from becoming sick with the flu. No single action protects completely. If used together, the steps below can help reduce the chances of becoming infected.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand cleaner if soap and water are not available.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm when you cough and sneeze.

• Stay away from other people if you are ill.

• Avoid crowded places and large gatherings as much as possible.

Respitory Protection: Face masks suggested by Mitt & Robe Co.
CDC Masks and Respirators

Los Angeles Times: Do face masks help prevent swine flu infection?
More Swine Flu:
Swine Flu: What You Need to Know
Pork Chops Won't Give You Swine Flu, But Here Are Other Reasons to Abstain

Written by Martin Frid at

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