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

By Renee Cherry
January 28, 2020
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When Busy Philipps lost the face mask she wears on airplanes to avoid getting sick, she got creative. The actress recently posted a selfie on Instagram with a blue bandana tied around her face to cover her mouth and nose. Not a bad look, TBH.

Philipps' failure to secure a face mask before her trip was not for lack of trying. "I lost my flying face mask😭😷 and went to three different pharmacies last night that were all sold out so I guess this is the best I can do for now🤞🏻🤞🏻🤞🏻," she wrote in her caption. (Related: How Quickly Can You Really Catch an Illness On an Airplane—and How Much Should You Worry?)

Even Vanessa Hudgens is hopping on the face mask-bandwagon. She recently shared a photo of her and her sister, Stella donning matching surgical face masks in a mirror selfie. "We ain't afraid of no flu," Vanessa captioned the post.

But celebs aren't the only people wearing everything from scarves to surgical face masks to avoid a cold or the flu. Face masks are apparently selling out at pharmacies around the U.S., which presumably has to do with news about the coronavirus that's officially reached the states (not to mention it's peak flu season RN). 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. One brand's surgical masks have climbed to the seventh spot on Amazon's beauty best-sellers list, with a 400 percent increase in sales rank over the past 24 hours. (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 N-95 masks, which fit tighter to the face and are more rigid. The increased protection comes at a cost, though–they're more uncomfortable and can make breathing more difficult, says Dr. Amler. Like surgical masks, they're available online (assuming they're not sold out). N-95 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 type of face mask is officially recommended by the CDC for regular wear by the average person, with the caveat that N-95 masks "may be appropriate for persons at increased risk of severe illness from influenza or other respiratory diseases." Translation: Don't feel obligated to start wearing one as a protective measure, unless your doctor tells you it's in your best interest to do so.

At the end of the day, there are several ways you can lower your risk of picking up viruses 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."

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