What’s The Difference Between a Face Mask and a Condom?

Author Stephen A. Berger, MD , 22-Apr-2020

Cloth surgical masks were first used in the late 19th century and were replaced by modern masks during the 1960s. Surgeons do not wear masks to protect themselves from the patient but to protect the patient from their own oral and nasal bacteria.

In any case, masks do protect the users themselves. Various masks are currently marketed in various designs, materials, filtering specifications, and prices. Both cloth and paper masks will offer protection against COVID-19…. but not one-hundred-percent protection. For this reason, we must observe additional precautions such as social distancing, hand washing, etc.


Can COVID-19 Get Through the Face Mask and Cause Harm?

Masks are designed to filter out small particles from the air. In theory, the virus that causes COVID-19 could easily evade even the high-quality masks we have seen in our streets lately. More than 200,000 individual viruses would fit into the period at the end of this sentence. The good news is that we become infected through somewhat larger particles, consisting of the virus itself, mucus, cellular debris from the lungs and throat, etc. So, wear face masks if there is any concern about potentially being infected with COVID, such as in large gatherings, crowded public spaces, and if you are feeling even slightly under the weather.

A Face Mask is Not a Substitute for Social Distancing

Sadly, masks also give the user a false sense of security.

When you see neighbors in masks sitting next to others, you may be thinking, “If I were to tell you that the other guy is infected with coronavirus, would you continue to sit with him? Or will you back away? After all, you do have a mask. If he is also wearing a mask, will you be reassured?”

Reminded of the early days of the AIDS pandemic, which continues today, young travelers en route to exotic countries would assure medical professionals that they would use condoms. Many would ask them, “If you found out that this person is HIV-positive would you continue to partner with them? After all, you are wearing a condom!”

This is why you may hear people comparing condoms to face masks in casual conversations and other settings. It is a concept that has even gained traction as an internet meme. But, when the difference between the two seems so small, is it a surprise it’s being talked about alongside health topics by the public at large?


How to Properly Wear Face Masks

Wearing a face mask is now a part of our everyday life. In early April 2020, the CDC recommended that everyone wear one to help slow the spread of COVID-19 after new research showed that 50% of people who get it don’t show symptoms. So they will likely be around for quite some time, but unfortunately, many people aren’t wearing them correctly and could be exposing themselves unnecessarily.

Masks should be as closely fitted to the skin as possible. The nose must also be covered. Note that when people are tested for the virus, a swab is inserted into the nose – because that is where the virus is! 

Medical professionals and doctors often wear face masks below the nose in the operating room. This is not only poor practice; it is blatantly illogical! Several years ago, we conducted an experiment to test the influence of mask position on contamination rates in an operating room – see Effect of Surgical Mask Position on Bacterial Contamination of the Operative Field.

Regarding the problem of eyeglass fogging, many surgical colleagues recommend that the mask must be pressed tightly onto the skin under the eyes but worn loosely under the chin to redirect the flow of exhaled air. This is a great way to protect your health, the health of others, and your glasses from the smudgy fog that is common with masking!


What About Face Shields?

Plastic face shields, or now “COVID visors,” are one piece of PPE still questionable as to how effective and necessary they are at protecting against the virus and helping maintain health. Unlike fabric face masks recommended by the CDC  in many situations and settings (think of the indoor mask mandate that is common in many places now), there are no official guidelines or suggestions for wearing face shields. This begs the question: are face shields merely just in fashion at the moment – with many style influencers on social media sporting them — or are they functional for health and protection?

GIDEON Founder, Dr. Stephen Berger, answers questions about face shields for an article in InStyle magazine.

“Theoretically, the virus of COVID-19 could arrive at the eyes and travel down through our tear ducts into the nose and throat,” says Dr. Berger. In this scenario, a face shield could protect the eyes from infected respiratory droplets potentially entering the body.

However, there is still little to suggest that someone going about their everyday business would need to wear one. A protective fabric mask that fits snuggly over the mouth and nose is still the better option. “Plastic visors and shields do not filter air and, at most, prevent larger droplets of infectious material from arriving at our face directly,” Dr. Berger explains.

Additionally, face masks could lend a sense of false security, with the wearer getting too close to someone else or feeling confident in attending large gatherings, which are still considered unsafe. To help prevent the spread of the disease, the best protection remains wearing protective face coverings made of cloth, social distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene.

Medical experts concede that the few instances when it may be helpful to wear a face shield are when working out and it is difficult to breathe in a tighter mask or when it is necessary for someone who is hearing impaired to read lips and see facial expressions.


You Can Forget the Gloves for COVID

Because the virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets and not through the skin, the jury is still out on whether or not gloves are beneficial at all. Our co-founder and infectious disease expert, Dr. Stephen Berger, recently commented on the efficacy of gloves for an article in InStyle magazine. He says, “there is no evidence that gloves can protect us from acquiring COVID-19.”

Dr. Berger adds that, if anything, they are more likely to prevent someone from passing the virus to others rather than protecting themselves from getting it. It is also important to remember that wearing gloves can potentially promote a false sense of security if you touch something thinking it’s safe while wearing them and then inadvertently touch your face. Along with Dr. Berger, most medical experts agree that gloves are unnecessary unless you are a medical professional.

Frequent and thorough hand washing is still recommended as the best defense against the virus, but for those who still want to cover their hands, some tips for best use include:

  • Opt for disposable latex versions and throw them in the trash after each use.
  • Wait until the last possible moment to put gloves on before going out.
  • Minimize touching your face while wearing gloves.


The GIDEON Difference for Public Health

GIDEON is one of the most well-known and comprehensive scientific global databases for infectious diseases. Data is refreshed daily, and the GIDEON API allows medical professionals and public health researchers access to a continuous stream of data. Whether your research involves quantifying data, learning about specific microbes, or testing out differential diagnosis tools– GIDEON has you covered with a program that has met standards for accessibility excellence. Empower your public health works today.

You can also review our eBooks on AlkhurmaBotulismCryptococcus, etc., Or check out our global status updates on countries like AlgeriaCanadaIceland, and more!

Stephen A. Berger, MD

Stephen A. Berger, M.D. is affiliated with the Tel Aviv Medical Center, where he has served as Director of both Geographic Medicine and Clinical Microbiology. He also holds an appointment as Emeritus Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Tel-Aviv School of Medicine. Dr. Berger co-founded GIDEON Informatics, developers of the GIDEON (Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Online Network) web app, and the GIDEON series of ebooks.

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