When, How & Type Of Face Mask To Wear On A Plane

by SharonKurheg

With coronavirus as the headline all over the world, people are, understandably, if not scared, at least concerned. That concern increases when you’re stuck in a tin can with 100+ other people, breathing recirculated air for hours on end. So a lot of people are wearing face masks on planes.

Not all face masks are the same and not all face masks are appropriate for something like coronavirus. So here’s a quick rundown.

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Most face masks that are usually sold at your local pharmacy are good to protect you against fluid sprays, or to stop you from spreading germs via droplets if you have a cold. They may even be good to protect you against pollution or allergens. But they’ll do next to nothing to protect you from the coronavirus.

Those masks are made to block things that are 0.3 microns. But the coronavirus particles are about 0.1 microns, so they go right through the microscopic holes in the mask.


To help with size comparison, a human hair is about 50 microns. So coronavirus particles are less than 1/100th the width of that.

N95 NIOSH approved (NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) respirators filter at least 95% of airborne particles. However, you need to make sure they’re fitting correctly in order to ensure they’re 100% effective (the process to make sure it fits correctly is called fit testing. When I worked in health care, I had to be fit tested for my N95 respirator every year, in case I needed to work with patients who had TB). Oh, and if you have facial hair, it’s virtually impossible to get an N95 mask to fit appropriately – the hair gets in the way of the seal.

Although N95 masks are potentially the most protective, they’re difficult to put on and they’re uncomfortable to wear. When we were at airports over the past few days, and even on the planes, we saw some people wearing their masks like this:

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DON’T WEAR A MASK THAT WAY – it does absolutely nothing to protect you.

Do you really need to wear a mask on a plane if you’re healthy?

Not really, no.

The highest percentage of people wearing masks is in Asian countries. They’ll wear them because of pollution or allergies/pollen – regular face masks do great with those. They’re rarely using them to protect themselves, although some will wear a mask when they have a cold, in an attempt to protect others. Not that it really will – regular masks let cold virus particles through. However, it also decreases droplets when you cough or sneeze, both into the air and onto your hands, so there is that.

So if you’re showing signs of having a cold or allergies, then yes, definitely wear a mask to help protect others. But if you’re healthy, no, you don’t need to wear a mask – nothing out there will really help, unless you’re willing to wear an uncomfortable N95 NIOSH approved respiratory filter that you know fits appropriately because you’ve been fit tested for it. Otherwise, just take your normal precautions, like frequent handwashing with soap and hot water.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

Christian February 4, 2020 - 5:19 pm

From extensive personal observation, a lot of Asians wear masks even when there’s no pollution to speak of and little chance of pollen. From what I’ve gathered, in those cases it’s an attempt to avoid illness, although as you noted it does nothing against viruses. I was in Malaysia for Chinese New Year last month and about a third of Asian tourists wore a mask, which is way more than is likely for pollen or allergies. I found it disturbing because it gave a false sense of security that could end up getting a lot of people sick.


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