As Busy Philipps can attest, U.S. pharmacies have been selling out of protective face masks amid news about the coronavirus. Here's what you should know before buying one.

By Renee Cherry
February 26, 2020
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When Busy Philipps lost the face mask she wears on airplanes to avoid getting sick, she got creative.

Since every pharmacy she went to was "all sold out" of protective face masks, the actress opted for a blue bandana tied around her face to cover her mouth and nose instead, she recently shared on Instagram.

Not a bad look, TBH.

She's far from the only celebrity who's posted a photo showing off a variation of the medical mask lately. Bella Hadid, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Hudson have all posted their own face mask selfies on social media. Even Selena Gomez shared a photo of herself wearing a face mask during a recent mother-daughter trip to Chicago. (Note: Gomez has lupus, putting her at greater risk for infection. Though Gomez didn't specify her reason for wearing the mask while traveling, that could've played into her decision.)

But celebs aren't the only people wearing everything from scarves to surgical face masks to avoid getting sick. Face masks have been selling out at pharmacies around the U.S., which presumably has to do with news about COVID-19, the coronavirus strain that's officially reached the states. Pharmacies in Seattle began selling out of surgical masks within hours of the first confirmed U.S. case of coronavirus, and people are buying large quantities of the masks in New York and Los Angeles, BBC reported. Multiple types of surgical face masks have secured spots on Amazon's beauty best-sellers list, and N95 respirator masks (more on what those are in a bit) have seen a similarly quick burst in sales ranks on the site. Amazon has even started warning sellers against jacking up their face mask prices, as some brands may be seeking to take advantage of the growing demand, according to Wired. (Related: The Best Cold Medicines for Every Symptom)

Clearly a lot of people are convinced that face masks are a worthwhile purchase. And since there's currently no known treatment or vaccine for this strain of coronavirus, it's no wonder that people want to rely on these masks to avoid getting sick. But do they actually make a difference?

They're definitely not foolproof. By wearing a paper surgical face mask, you'll mostly just be doing everyone around you a solid, rather than protecting yourself, says Robert Amler, M.D., Dean of New York Medical College's School of Health Sciences and former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Face masks, like those used in surgery, are not designed to protect people who wear them, but instead keep their own droplets, when they cough or [spit], from landing on others," he explains.

Problem is, paper surgical face masks are somewhat porous and can allow air leakage around the edges, adds Dr. Amler. That being said, these basic surgical masks can block some larger particles from reaching your mouth and nose, and they can serve as a reminder not to touch your face. (Related: 9 Ways to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling, According to Doctors)

If you're dead-set on wearing a mask for protection, you're better off with an N95 filtering facepiece respirator (N95 ffr mask), which fits tighter to the face and is more rigid. N95 respirator masks are designed to filter out metal fumes, mineral and dust particles, and viruses, according to the CDC. The increased protection comes at a cost, though–they're more uncomfortable and can make breathing more difficult, says Dr. Amler.

Like surgical masks, N95 respirator masks are available online, assuming they're not sold out. N95 masks approved by the FDA for the general public's use (rather than industrial use) include 3M Particulate Respirators 8670F and 8612F and Pasture F550G and A520G respirators.

To be clear, neither N95 respirator masks nor paper surgical face masks are officially recommended by the CDC for regular wear, with the caveat that N95 masks may be worthwhile for people with a high risk of getting a severe illness from the new coronavirus strain, the flu, or another respiratory disease. A statement on face masks re: COVID-19 on the CDC website is straightforward: "CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19," reads the statement. "You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it. A face mask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected." (Related: How Quickly Can You Really Catch an Illness On an Airplane—and How Much Should You Worry?)

At the end of the day, there are several ways you can lower your risk of picking up viruses, including COVID-19, without having to hunt for a pharmacy that still has masks in stock. Says Dr. Amler: "Recommendations are to wash hands frequently and to avoid close contact with people who are coughing."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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