NEJM Says Masks Don't Protect You?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

masks ineffective against viruses

Story at-a-glance

  • Scientists writing in the NEJM said there is little protection with masks and little chance of catching COVID-19 from passing interaction
  • In a later contradictory statement, three of the authors called for the public to use masks, but said the chance of transmission is nearly eight times higher at home than in passing encounters
  • The CDC is promoting cloth masks for preventing COVID-19 and flu, although a paper in their journal found no significant effect of face masks on transmission of flu
  • Despite a lack of evidence, the WHO lists potential advantages that have little to do with personal health and more to do with learning about peoples’ levels of submission


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

Whether or not to wear a mask has become one of the most hotly contested debates of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the question of whether or not school children should wear them is causing divisions among parents and within neighborhoods, potentially sparking legal challenges, it's become an added layer of stress on the children.1

As most public health officials are pushing face masks, social distancing and a potential vaccine, by and large they are ignoring the role a healthy lifestyle plays in reducing the severity of COVID-19 illness.

In fact, this disquieting pandemic has presented a unique opportunity for public health officials to create better awareness about healthy lifestyle choices that improve overall health, reduce the risk of infection and lessen the severity of any infectious disease.

Unfortunately, it appears as if their focus is not on health and wellness of the people they serve, but rather on creating an environment in which pharmaceutical agendas can be pushed as better options. For example, Reuters writes that the public can expect an “overwhelming” vaccine campaign in November, and includes comments from an unnamed senior administration official:2

“The fine line we are walking is getting the American people very excited about vaccines and missing expectations versus having a bunch of vaccines in the warehouse and not as many people want to get it. You may not hear a lot about promoting vaccines over the airwaves in August and September but you’ll be overwhelmed by it come November."

As time marches forward, and pharmaceutical companies scramble to release the first vaccination for public distribution, it’s important that members of the public are suitably groomed to accept and even welcome a vaccine that may well come with a high price tag. So far, keeping the mask debate front and center has worked to the advantage of Big Pharma.

NEJM Reverses Opinion and Sends Mixed Messages

In May 2020, five authors published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which they explored the need for personal protective equipment in a public setting. By the second paragraph they had acknowledged several facts:3

“We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes).

The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”

They concluded by saying:

“It is also clear that masks serve symbolic roles. Masks are not only tools, they are also talismans that may help increase health care workers’ perceived sense of safety, well-being, and trust in their hospitals.

Although such reactions may not be strictly logical, we are all subject to fear and anxiety, especially during times of crisis. One might argue that fear and anxiety are better countered with data and education than with a marginally beneficial mask …”

Within months, three of the authors began to backpedal. In a subsequent letter to the editor it appears as if they are calling for universal masking at home rather in a public place, such as the grocery store or department store. They wrote:4

“A growing body of research shows that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is strongly correlated with the duration and intensity of contact: the risk of transmission among household members can be as high as 40%, whereas the risk of transmission from less intense and less sustained encounters is below 5%.”

The newest letter highlights the mixed messages the public is being fed and appears to contradict their newest call for universal public masking since they underscore the knowledge there is a higher transmission in households.

What Does the Evidence Show?

The debate about the effectiveness of masks had been going on long before COVID-19. Nearly a century ago, surgical masks were introduced to help protect patients during surgery. Yet, the question remains as to whether this established routine is necessary.5

In one study published in 2016, scientists found no difference in the infection rates of patients who were undergoing clean surgery, whether the surgical team was masked or unmasked.6 A clean surgery was defined as one in which the lungs, gut, genitals and bladder were not involved.

The authors of another study sought to determine whether wearing a mask during the cold season could help reduce the number of health care professionals who got sick.7 They recruited workers in a tertiary care hospital where it’s likely they had greater-than-passing interactions with patients and coworkers.

Data were collected for 77 consecutive days during cold season. In the group who wore a mask at work, there were significantly more headaches and no evidence the masks had a benefit in protecting the participants against getting a cold.

Another team also compared the effectiveness of cloth masks in protecting health care workers.8 They used 1,607 participants at 14 secondary- and tertiary-level hospitals in Hanoi, Vietnam. The outcome measurement was a clinical demonstration of respiratory illness, flu-like illness or laboratory-confirmed respiratory infection.

The team found that those who wore cloth masks had a higher rate of flu-like illness and all measured infections as compared to those who used medical masks. They believed moisture retention in a cloth mask, along with reuse and poor filtration were potential reasons for higher rates of infection among mask wearers.

CDC Is Promoting Cloth Masks

As I've written before, the size of the virus matters. SARS-CoV-2 is a beta coronavirus that has a diameter between 0.06 microns and 0.14 microns.9 This is about half the size of most other viruses that tend to measure between 0.02 microns to 0.3 microns,10 and much smaller than bacteria that average 0.5 microns to 2.0 microns, against which masks are effective.11

Lab testing has shown that 3M surgical masks can block up to 75% of particles that measure between 0.02 and 1 micron.12 Cloth masks block between 30% and 60% of respiratory droplets, depending upon the material used. However, the virus is not restricted to staying within respiratory droplets and can be aerosolized to particles far smaller, which cannot be caught by any mask.

The CDC is currently promoting the use of masks by the public as “a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice.”13

The study on cloth masks the CDC included in their list of recent studies, notes that while cotton is the most commonly used material, it is the weave density that makes a difference in filtration efficiency, and gaps that occur around the face can reduce the effectiveness of filtration by more than 60%.14

In a press release from July 14, 2020, the CDC affirmed that cloth coverings are a “critical tool in the fight against COVID-19. There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director of the CDC, was adamant about the power of cloth face masks, saying:15

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Yet Masks Are Not Effective Against Viruses

With the push to wear cloth masks, the CDC found that after people in the U.S. were advised to wear “cloth face coverings when leaving home, the proportion of U.S. adults who chose to do so increased, with 3 in 4 reporting in a national internet survey they had adopted the recommendation.”16

And yet, a policy review paper published in the CDC’s own journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, did not support Redfield’s statement. The paper measured the effectiveness of masks against influenza (0.08 microns to .12 microns), which measures very close to the size of COVID-19.17

In it, the researchers reviewed "the evidence base on the effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical personal protective measures … in non-health care settings," and found no evidence of benefit:18

"Although mechanistic studies support the potential effect of hand hygiene or face masks, evidence from 14 randomized controlled trials of these measures did not support a substantial effect on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

Evidence from RCTs of hand hygiene or face masks did not support a substantial effect on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza, and limited evidence was available on other environmental measures."

Although masks are “not usually recommended in non-health care settings,” they are not making a recommendation for mask use by people who are asymptomatic in the community.19

Universal Masks Remind People To Be Compliant

Without strong scientific evidence to back up recommendations for using cloth masks or surgical masks during flu season or during the COVID-19 outbreak, governmental agencies around the world seem to be using the recommendations to prod the public into compliance with their mostly unsubstantiated and often conflicting demands.20 This may have a far deeper and long-term meaning, as Patrick Wood suggests in this video after years of investigation.

But, in either case, the use of fear and the requirement for mask wearing are the first steps in pushing people into submitting to an agenda. Despite the lack of evidence, the World Health Organization continues to make a case for universal mask wearing.

In a June 5, 2020, report, after listing the health-related reasons for wearing masks and discussing concerns about the practice, they include a list of “potential benefits/advantages” that have little to do with personal health, and more to do with learning submission, likely in preparation for future “recommendations.” These include:21

"Reduced potential stigmatization of individuals wearing masks to prevent infecting others or of people caring for COVID-19 patients in nonclinical settings" — In other words, we should all wear masks to make people caring for COVID-19 patients feel more accepted, as if that's a significant problem.

"Making people feel they can play a role in contributing to stopping spread of the virus" — i.e., masks, while providing a false sense of security, make people feel like they're "doing something" to help. Put another way, it makes people feel virtuous and "good."

"Reminding people to be compliant with other measures" — In other words, people are expected to go along with what they’re told to do.

"Potential social and economic benefits" — This is perhaps the most ludicrously strained reason of all. According to the WHO:

"Encouraging the public to create their own fabric masks may promote individual enterprise and community integration … The production of non-medical masks may offer a source of income for those able to manufacture masks within their communities. Fabric masks can also be a form of cultural expression, encouraging public acceptance of protection measures in general."

Your Mask Is Useless Without These Guidelines

If you do choose to wear a face mask, then it’s important to strictly follow these guidelines. As this short video demonstrates, just one slip of your hand and you are depositing bacteria on your face, making the mask ineffective against even the bacteria it can filter.

This shouldn’t be scary since you’ve likely been walking around without a mask for years before this, including during cold and flu season. While the symptoms of these two viruses are not the same, they are respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2. They measure about the same size and are transmitted the same way. These are the strategies the WHO recommends for reducing the potential of infecting yourself:22

  • Before putting on a mask, clean your hands with soap and water.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with the mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  • Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you have to, try to clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water first.
  • Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp. Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • To take off the mask, remove it from behind (do not touch the front of the mask); discard it immediately in a closed bin; and clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.


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