Do masks and face coverings give a false sense of security?

Evidence shows mask wearers are unlikely to abandon good hygiene habits.

two people walking closely wearing masks

As anti-mask sentiment threatens to derail efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, scientists have debunked one of the major arguments used by anti-maskers.

There has been a suggestion that wearing a mask provides some people with a false sense of security and will see people fall back into old hygiene habits.

The latest evidence from the University of Cambridge has suggested that this will not be the case.

Researchers found that wearing face coverings to protect against COVID-19 does not lead to a false sense of security and is unlikely to increase the risk of infection through wearers foregoing other behaviours such as good hand hygiene.

Wearing masks is now mandatory in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire and is becoming increasingly recommended across Australia as a way of reducing transmission of COVID-19.

Worn correctly, face coverings can reduce transmission of the virus as part of a set of protective measures, including maintaining physical distance from others and good hand hygiene. 

While it is not clear how much of an effect face coverings have, scientists have urged policymakers to encourage the wearing of face coverings because the risks are minimal while the potential impact is important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that wearing face coverings could “create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices”. This type of behaviour is known as ‘risk compensation’.

A team led by Dame Theresa Marteau, a professor at the University of Cambridge, examined the evidence for risk compensation to see whether concerns might be justified in the context of face coverings.

The idea behind risk compensation is that people have a target level of risk they are comfortable with and they adjust their behaviour to maintain that level risk.

At an individual level, risk compensation is commonplace: for example, people run for longer to offset an eagerly anticipated indulgent meal and a cyclist may wear a helmet to cycle at speed.

At a population level, evidence for risk compensation is less clear.

A common example is the mandated wearing of bike helmets purportedly leading to an increase in the number of bike injuries and fatalities.

Another often-cited example is the introduction of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HPV vaccination purportedly leading to an increase in unprotected sex.

Prof. Marteau and colleagues say the results of the most recent systematic reviews – a technique that involves examining all available evidence on a topic – do not justify the concerns of risk compensation for either of these examples.

In fact, for HPV vaccination, the opposite effect was found: those who were vaccinated were less likely to engage in unprotected sexual behaviour as measured by rates of sexually transmitted infection.

At least 22 systematic reviews have assessed the effect of wearing a mask on transmission of respiratory virus infections. These include six experimental studies, involving more than 2000 households in total – conducted in community settings that also measured hand hygiene.

While none of the studies was designed to assess risk compensation or looked at social distancing, their results suggest that wearing masks does not reduce the frequency of hand washing or hand sanitising. In fact, in two studies, self-reported rates of hand washing were higher in the groups allocated to wearing masks. 

The team also found three observational studies that showed people tended to move away from those wearing a mask, suggesting that face coverings do not adversely affect physical distancing at least by those surrounding the wearer.

“The concept of risk compensation, rather than risk compensation itself, seems the greater threat to public health through delaying potentially effective interventions that can help prevent the spread of disease,” said Prof. Marteau.

How do you feel about wearing a mask or face covering? Are you surprised at the people who are refusing to wear a mask in Melbourne?

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    28th Jul 2020
    How do you feel about wearing a mask or face covering? Are you surprised at the people who are refusing to wear a mask in Melbourne?
    My reply; I live in Qld. and intend to wear one I've just purchased from eBay; Those in Melbourne who refuse to wear one should be locked up away from the general public.
    Horace Cope
    28th Jul 2020
    "How do you feel about wearing a mask or face covering? Are you surprised at the people who are refusing to wear a mask in Melbourne?"

    I have no problem wearing a face mask. The number of people in Melbourne who refuse to wear a mask are only a small handful who have gained too much publicity. I note that the request to wear a mask also includes the request to also wash hands regularly, use hand sanitisers and keep social distancing.
    28th Jul 2020
    Well said, thank you.
    28th Jul 2020
    ON point Horace;)
    28th Jul 2020
    Great comment! All the best... stay safe!
    28th Jul 2020
    Those refusing to wear masks should be charged with endangering human lives.
    28th Jul 2020
    I just wish that if people are going to wear masks they do so properly. That means the nose goes INSIDE the mask, the mask should cover the chin, the mask should NOT have gaps between the mask and the face, removing them when talking to people and people must not continually adjust the mask touching their face in the process.

    Doing any of these things reduces the efficacy of wearing the mask in the first place.
    28th Jul 2020
    I agree with you 100 percent. I am trained in sterile/infection procedures. I have been wearing a mask since March, only to minimise infectio/ viral load as I care for my elderly parents. I used to be a front line worker. I always have worn a mask in a small grocery store and my old work place, a small pharmacy or places that lack ventilation. I do run every day in the open air, but keep my distance from people. A mask is only 60 to 70 percent effective and must be used in combination with hand washing/sanitation and social distancing, otherwise no point in wearing a mask.

    I have seen people not sanitising their hands before putting on a mask and taking it off, wearing it around their necks whilst smoking or having a coffee and then not replacing it with a fresh mask. I have seen masks hanging off the ears and even on dashboard mirrors! As you stated, I have seen masks below the nose and I have noticed this with elderly people in the supermarket. I go up yo them and advise them what to do, making sure they sanitise first...they had no idea. When I worked in the pharmacy, I as teaching people how to use masks as they said to me they had no idea....

    I have seen people coughing into their masks but not practicing social distancing, as they perhaps assume a mask will stop the virus being dispersed.

    So, I don't know whether wearing mandatory masks will make a difference when there is a lot of community is like a global science experiment, We shall see. I wonder if any one is doing any research on the introduction of mandatory masks in Melbourne and how it will affect the transmission of the virus?
    28th Jul 2020
    "...A team led by Dame Theresa Marteau, a professor at the University of Cambridge, examined the evidence for risk compensation to see whether concerns might be justified in the context of face coverings.

    The idea behind risk compensation is that people have a target level of risk they are comfortable with and they adjust their behaviour to maintain that level risk."

    I have some concern about this concept, because we are all aware that there are increasing numbers of conspiratory theorists and folks insisting masks are just a gov't way to control the population and orders/laws to wear masks breaks their human rights, etc. These folks are, in my opinion, dangerous. The initial comment could be taken to mean that it's up to each individual to decide what protection they use against Covid 19. And people may well say that this concept came from a professor, so it must be good. Very dangerous approach in my view and given what's happening Melbourne (and in Sydney) we need, as a society to all do the right thing, wear masks, etc.
    28th Jul 2020
    I would feel self conscious if I wore a mask in my town. It's rare to see anyone wearing masks where I live in. People sanitize surfaces but they rarely wear masks in the shops, in doctors surgeries, at schools or in public areas. I am not saying its right or wrong to wear a mask. I am just stating my observations. Based on my observations, if wearing masks prevents COVID, then theoretically the disease should be rampant here in Western Australia because so few people wear masks. Most of the deaths in WA to date were elderly people who had been on the cruiseships. I find it strange that the cruises as the original sources of the infection seem to have been long forgotten. WIkIpedia statistics confirm that only some cruiseships were strongly affected by COVID - other cruiseliners had no cases of COVID or deaths due to COVID. Back when COVID started, there was a lot of talk that the affected cruise ships had intentionally been infected with COVID. The most plausible explanation at the time was via the use of an aerosol product like an airfreshener ... If this theory was correct, perhaps that's still happening. PErhaps the cleaning contractors in the Melbourne area all buy their products from the same (Chinese) supplier and they are using thia tainted air freshener product in age care homes and high rise complexes. This would explain why COVID outbreaks keep happening in health conscious facilities like aged care homes. Perhaps instead of focusing on wearing masks and testing people, Melbourne should be PRODUCT-tracing and testing...
    28th Jul 2020
    " there was a lot of talk that the affected cruise ships had intentionally been infected with COVID. The most plausible explanation at the time was via the use of an aerosol product like an airfreshener".


    Right up there in the conspiracy theory stakes aussiecarer.
    28th Jul 2020
    Or it could be that WA, like some other states closed their borders until there were no cases of the virus. If you lived in Melbourne right now, you would be embarrassed not to wear a mask!
    28th Jul 2020
    Oh dear. So many wrong conclusions here.
    WA contained COVID because they didn't have a Ruby Princess mistake or a Victorian quarantine breach. They don't need masks.
    At the moment NSW does not need masks in the general community. However they do need them under certain circumstances where the 1.5 m rule cannot be applied.
    Victoria's breach can now only be contained by a full lock down or everyone wearing masks.
    There is a limit to how much debt Australia can carry so if all a person needs to do is wear a mask and only go to essential destinations then 'self conscious' is nothing compared to 60 days on a ventilator.
    28th Jul 2020
    For fxxx sake, Australia/the world is in the midst of a serious pandemic with many folks dying. I would like to urgently see serious punishments for conspiracy theorists and folks insisting it breaks their human rights to be told to wear a mask etc.
    29th Jul 2020
    agree Al....maybe put the anti mask, anti vax and conspiracy twits on a register so they can be triaged at hospital as the lowest priority cases for medical assistance. I would refuse them treatment at all if it were up to me.
    28th Jul 2020
    What about claustrophobics?
    28th Jul 2020
    You have a choice: wear a mask/face covering or stay home.
    28th Jul 2020
    What about claustrophobic people? Silly question/simple answer. The world must aim to beat the virus by stopping the spread, those folks who feel panicked by a mask should be taken care of by setting up services so they can stay home. But lets be serious, we must stop the spread and it's going to be a nuisance/be painful for many people. We all have to contribute to stopping the spread even if it's not convenient. Not that difficult to understand.
    28th Jul 2020
    BillW41 - if you suffer from claustrophobia you're just as likely to get the virus as anyone else and as likely to spread it. If you are around other people then wear a mask; if you can't bear it, then stay inside, get someone to do your shopping. How would claustrophobics feel on a ventilator? Not happy I suspect.
    28th Jul 2020
    I agree with flowerpot.
    28th Jul 2020
    Yes, a mask or a ventilator....mmm
    28th Jul 2020
    Claustrophobic... I suffer from severe PTSD, panic and anxiety and I live in a wheelchair, all the result of my service for Australia in Sth. Vietnam 50 years ago. I manage myself as needed and get on with life. I wear a mask every minute I'm outside my apartment and inside my apartment if I have visitors. It's not that difficult and I always think about my responsibility to be a good citizen and think about the safety of others, as well as myself.
    28th Jul 2020
    First comment, Al - thank you for serving Australia back in the day, according to the wisdom of that time. I was fortunate enough to be just that bit younger and avoided the draft through the Whitlam government ending it all and pulling us out of Vietnam. I am sorry for the impact your service has obviously had on your life since, though you sound like someone who has picked up the ball and run with it despite your setbacks.
    That approach is now leading you to continue to be the best Aussie you can be even in these difficult times, and doing what needs to be done. I wish some of the Bunnings Karens and other nitwits in our community could have half the community spirit you have. Just wanna say, "Good on ya, mate!" and hoping you come through this ok and continue to have many more years as a decent upstanding Aussie bloke!
    29th Jul 2020
    I offer you my respect. Thank you for you post, AI
    28th Jul 2020
    A false sense of security? They used to say the same thing against seatbelts when they were first mooted!
    28th Jul 2020
    28th Jul 2020
    Only sheeple catch this covid flu, right Steff? :)
    29th Jul 2020
    No it is a different virus altogether, when you compare the the viruses under a microscope. SARS-2 has spike proteins around a bubble of fat ( lipid coating) whereas the flu virus has surface proteins hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). SARS-2 induces symptoms which are not like flu symptoms, and there are major differences:

    From the CDC wesbite:

    a) Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from flu, may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

    b. Flu- a person develops symptoms anywhere from 1 to 4 days after infection.

    COVID-19- Typically, a person develops symptoms 5 days after being infected, but symptoms can appear as early as 2 days after infection or as late as 14 days after infection, and the time range can vary.

    If a person has COVID-19, they may be contagious for a longer period of time than if they had flu.

    c). Flu- Most people with flu are contagious for about 1 day before they show symptoms.

    Older children and adults with flu appear to be most contagious during the initial 3-4 days of their illness but many remain contagious for about 7 days.

    Infants and people with weakened immune systems can be contagious for even longer.

    COVID-19- How long someone can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 is still under investigation.

    It’s possible for people to spread the virus for about 2 days before experiencing signs or symptoms and remain contagious for at least 10 days after signs or symptoms first appeared. If someone is asymptomatic or their symptoms go away, it’s possible to remain contagious for at least 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19.


    While COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. Also, COVID-19 has been observed to have more superspreading events than flu. This means the virus that causes COVID-19 can quickly and easily spread to a lot of people and result in continuous spreading among people as time progresses.

    d). Flu: Most people who get flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications


    Additional complications associated with COVID-19 can include:

    Blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain
    Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)

    So SARS-2 is definitely not the flu.
    29th Jul 2020
    Steff: you cannot seriously be that misinformed surely?

    See this graphical representation of Global deaths since 1 Jan 2020 as at 24 July:

    Tell us again "its the flu"!
    29th Jul 2020
    Thanks KSS, bookmarking this :) Interesting side note, I read that deaths in the form of pneumonia from the" flu" from March to April in Australia, may have been misdiagnosed as the flu instead of SARS-2...From my understanding a similar scenario, in Northern Italy before the huge increase in deaths occurred. I can't recall where I read, but flu deaths are down this year...of course, with the increase in vaccination would have helped ( not fullproof) but I suspect social distancing, increased hygiene measures would have decreased the incidence of the flu and the common cold.
    29th Jul 2020
    And may I add: the RO, for:

    1918 Spanish flu - 1.4 to 2.8

    2009 Swine flu - 1.4 to 1.8

    Covid19 - 5.7

    So I don't think it is the flu
    Chris B T
    28th Jul 2020
    Wearing of Masks is mandatory in the Nominated Areas by Health Directive, wear a mask but remember this Particular Virus Lives For Days on some surfaces so be Very Mindful of Touch Points. Particulates are airborne and full down on surfaces, could even be your exposed skin until washed off just like other surfaces for Days.
    Don't wont to wear a mask/face covering as required Stay Home.
    Where I live it is do the Three as our Health Directive.
    29th Jul 2020
    Agree, we must all follow the 'do the three' concept as a minimum. I also wear a clear full face mask which covers all of the face and when I'm out of my apartment.

    I also wear gloves when I'm out and change the gloves regularly and put the dirty gloves in a small plastic bag, tie the bag closed and put it immediately in a rubbish bin. I always carry and use hand sanitizer, and always use the wipes available at supermarkets to clean the handles etc., of the shopping cart. I pay by card as much as possible so that the cashier doesn't need to touch my cash. If I have to use the tips of 1 finger to touch the buttons at an ATM machine etc, I'm always ready with my own hand sanitizer to clean that finger.

    Personally I'm getting more and more annoyed with conspiracy stories and hoax claims and with folks who want to yell and scream about human rights etc. Is it really such an imposition? Are the rules so severe they cause severe pain or severe/critical complications in life? The answer is clearly NO< NO NO and NO.

    We all need to work together and it will be defeated.

    I just wonder how the conspiracy/human rights folks would react if one of their children or other family members caught the virus and died and it was discovered there was a person present claiming hoax/ conspiracy/ humanr ighst etc etc., and not wearing mask, gloves, not cleaning their hands, etc.

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