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Coronavirus Tips: What You Need to Know about Face Masks and Hand Sanitizer

Reading time: 4 Minutes

February 26th, 2020

As everyone keeps an eye on news of COVID-19, also referred to as Coronavirus, both here in the Islands and abroad, many Hawaii residents are considering what kind of preventive measures can be taken to minimize the risk of infection. Sales of face masks and hand sanitizer have been taking off, with supplies running low at many stores. However, official health protection agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) caution that there are limits to how much tools like these can help. Here’s what you need to know about the effectiveness of face masks and hand sanitizer, and the best ways to use them.

Face masks

Face masks are one of the most popular items being snagged as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, but how effective are they, really? According to the CDC, it depends. If you’re thinking about wearing a mask as a way to block germs while walking around in public, the CDC says you probably don’t need to bother.

There are two main types of face masks that people have been buying, but neither are extremely effective at blocking out airborne germs. Here’s why.

Surgical masks, the most common option, don’t provide effective respiratory protection because the relatively loose fit around the nose and mouth won’t prevent a person from inhaling smaller airborne particles that could contain COVID-19 or other respiratory illness germs.

Surgical masks do have their uses, mainly by medical professionals in close quarters with infected patients. In cases such as these, wrap-around masks work well to protect the wearer against large droplets or splashes of potentially infectious fluids. They can also be used by people experiencing flu-like symptoms, to block the main force of sneezes and coughs from being expelled out into the air.

The other kind of mask that’s available to consumers is the N95 respirator. This model is designed with a tighter fit around the nose and mouth, and when worn properly can block out 95 percent of small airborne particles. But “properly” is the operative word here. N95 respirators require training to use effectively, and it can be tricky to get a good, reliable seal. They’re also relatively uncomfortable to wear, making it less likely that people will be inclined to use them 100 percent of the time. The CDC does not currently recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators.

At this time, the best time to use a face mask is if you need to care for someone who is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and you expect to be in close contact with them (closer than three feet). Otherwise, consider skipping face masks for basic errands, because as supplies run short, it may become more important to reserve them for medical professionals and others who need them, such as the immunocompromised.

Tips for Using Face Masks Properly

  • If you do want to wear a face mask, use a disposable type and discard after each use. Reusing masks—particularly cloth ones—can increase the risk of infectious germs.
  • Don’t reach behind your mask to touch your mouth or nose with your hands. One of the ways masks protect is by limiting facial contact from potential contaminants. You’ll even want to avoid grabbing the front of your mask when removing it after use—unhook it from around your ears instead.
  • Think of masks as protection for those around you, not from themMedical experts say that masks are more effective as a germ barrier when worn by the one experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Hand Sanitizer

In recent years, alcohol-based hand sanitizer has become ubiquitous as a quick, convenient way to keep hands germ-free. It turns out, however, that hand sanitizer is no magic bullet, especially when it comes to blocking certain infectious diseases.

In January 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to Gojo Industries, the parent company of the popular hand sanitizer brand Purell®, stating it had to stop claiming its products were effective against viruses such as the Ebola virus, norovirus and influenza. The FDA stated, “FDA is currently not aware of any adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating that killing or decreasing the number of bacteria or viruses on the skin by a certain magnitude produces a corresponding clinical reduction in infection or disease caused by such bacteria or virus.”

The main message that the CDC wants the public to know is that nothing is better than washing your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water.

Don’t throw away your hand sanitizer just yet, though. The CDC does officially recommend hand sanitizer as a way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs, “if soap and water are not available.” It cautions, however, that while alcohol-based hand sanitizers can reduce the number of microbes on your hands, they don’t kill all types of germs.

Your best bet is to think of hand sanitizer as a back-up to regular hand-washing. It won’t replace a real scrubbing, but you never know when you’ll be stuck without access to soap and fresh water.

Tips for Using Hand Sanitizer Properly:

  • Make sure the sanitizer you’re using contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Less concentrated versions won’t do much to kill microbes, leaving you with a false sense of security.
  • Don’t skimp on sanitizer. Use enough product to cover all surfaces of your hands, and don’t clean it off your hands until it has completely dried.
  • Don’t rely on hand sanitizer to clean your hands if they’re visibly dirty or greasy, or if you think you’ve recently come into contact with harmful chemicals. Sanitizer can’t completely clean off these kinds of contaminants—it’s time for a good old fashioned wash with soap and water.

* The information and content provided herein are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is this information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment.

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