When an infectious disease is all over the news, it tends to leave us feeling relatively helpless. Washing our hands and using hand sanitizer might be the most effective courses of action, but these preventative measures feel too simple. If you watch any major news outlet, and keep up with the rising number of reported cases around the world, it seems like catching the coronavirus isn’t a matter of if but when. To stave off this inevitability, we feel we must take drastic measures beyond practicing simple hygiene. This is why frightened people, despite the advice of health officials, are going out and buying masks to protect themselves. The problem is, it’s actually doing more harm than good.

Masks are only advised for those who are already sick to prevent them from spreading their germs. And if you’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus, you probably shouldn’t be walking around in public anyway — mask or no mask. Wearing a mask when you’re perfectly healthy is a far less effective preventative measure than washing your hands, using hand sanitizer with over 60 percent alcohol, and avoiding touching your face.

And if you’re thinking, “Better safe than sorry, right?” it turns out there actually is a downside to needlessly wearing a mask.

If you’re not sick, skip the mask

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, the agency “does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Face masks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.”

Emily Scott, a registered nurse with a Diploma in Tropical Nursing at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in Washington, told Matador Network, “Virus particles are very small and can pass through the material of most masks. Certain types of masks can block the virus, but unless people are trained to use them properly the mask won’t make a difference (they could even make things worse by using them incorrectly and contaminating themselves). We also worry that masks provide a false sense of security.”

The wearing of masks also contributes to mass hysteria. Being surrounded by people wearing masks tends to make people feel like a new Black Death threatens humanity with extinction.

As a medical professional, Scott believes that mask-wearing can create the impression that one is sick, even if that’s not the case, sparking undue panic. “I have heard many stories of racist comments and actions particularly against Asian people wearing masks,” she said, “And another nurse told me that they caught hospital visitors stealing masks and selling them at a huge markup. Some people are definitely taking advantage of the public’s fear.”

So, who does need a mask?

A panicked, global grab for masks has unfortunately resulted in a worldwide shortage. This mad rush for masks, however, is causing the items to sell out in pharmacies and on Amazon, and prices on remaining masks to spike to as high as $100 each. That means a lack of availability for hospitals and doctor’s offices, which actually need them.

According to Scott, “I have heard many stories from colleagues all over the world about a shortage of masks due to the general public buying them out and hoarding them. The hospital where I work is keeping a very careful eye on our masks because visitors try to take them […] If nurses are left without the proper masks to protect themselves, then nurses would begin to fall ill, and there would be no one left to care for the patients.”

The CDC echoes Scott’s concern, saying “the use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a healthcare facility).” With fewer facemasks available for those who actually need them, sick patients and doctors could be put even further at risk.

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