COVID-19 FactPress Logo

The World Health Organization changed its stance on masks

by Grailing Anthonisen - June 30, 2020   1503 Views   5 min
The World Health Organization changed its stance on masks


The World Health Organization has changed its stance on wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic


Accurate as a whole (with reservations)

The website WebMD reported on 6 June 2020 that the World Health Organization (WHO) changed its stance on wearing face masks. This is accurate as a whole, with some reservations.

WebMD reported that WHO is recommending people over 60 and those with underlying medical conditions wear a medical-grade mask when they’re in public spaces and cannot physically distance, while everyone else should wear a non-medical fabric mask when they cannot physically distance. This is accurate with some reservations: WHO updated their stance according to new evidence and this update is not a drastic departure from their previous recommendations.  

What had WHO said previously?

WHO released recommendations about masks in March and April 2020. At the time, it emphasized that masks be prioritized for healthcare workers, people with symptoms of COVID-19 and their caregivers. While they acknowledged that in some countries people were already wearing masks according to local laws or their national authorities’ advice, WHO stressed physical distancing practices, covering your nose and mouth with your elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing, and avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose as primary measures to prevent transmission.

At the time, according to WHO, wearing fabric masks made for the general public had not been well evaluated and there had not been enough evidence to advise whether wearing one provided protection. Additionally, regarding medical masks, there was concern over healthcare workers having enough personal protective equipment to safely do their jobs. WHO recommended medical masks to be prioritized for them.

What is WHO currently recommending? Who should wear a mask and when?

WHO’s new guidelines are based on their previous guidelines. Like before, they continue to recommend that healthcare workers, people who have symptoms even if they are mild, and their caregivers wear medical-grade masks.

For the general public, the new recommendations expand who should wear masks. If you are 60 or older or have any underlying health conditions, you should wear a medical-grade mask when you are in public and physical distancing is not possible. These conditions include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic lung disease, immunosuppression, cerebrovascular disease and cancer.

WHO recommends that everyone else who is in public and cannot physically distance should wear a non-medical fabric mask. These situations include on public transportation and in shops, as well as areas where widespread transmission is known or suspected. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that children 2 and younger do not wear masks. The US CDC offered similar guidance that children under the age of 2 not wear masks.

However, wearing a mask is not an alternative to physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow. WHO’s emphasis on those practices remain the same. Masks are another measure to reduce the risk of transmission, especially when physical distancing is not possible.  

There have been recent studies, that suggest, especially if you live with multiple people, wearing a mask at home could reduce the spread of COVID-19 in shared living spaces. They add that regular daily cleaning of often-touched surfaces is of equal importance in this scenario. 

Why wear a mask?

Face masks help protect people because they can block the spread of infected droplets when physically distancing is not possible. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that up to 35% of people with COVID-19 could exhibit no symptoms and be contagious. They also explain that it can be spread before symptoms develop. Because of this, wearing a mask as a preventative measure can reduce the risks of transmission. Additionally, WHO said masks are a good way to remind people, even as more places open up and loosen restrictions, that the pandemic is ongoing and everyone has a role to play in preventing its spread.

This leads us to state that the claim we are verifying is accurate, with some reservations. The World Health Organization updated their stance. It expanded the use of face masks according to new evidence, to reduce the risk of transmission and infection when physical distancing is not possible and to further protect those over 60 years of age. Because all of WHO’s recommendations are evidence-based, they update their guidance according to the results of ongoing research. Sometimes it can seem like there is a delay, but WHO are waiting for validated scientific research before proceeding. 

What types of mask are there? 

There are medical and non-medical masks. According to WHO, N95 Respirators, or the European standard equivalent FFP2 Respirators, should be reserved for healthcare workers. They are fitted to the face, forming a seal, and filter at least 95% of particles. Procedural and surgical masks are loose-fitting and designed to cover the mouth and nose. They cannot be washed and are disposable.

Non-medical masks are also called fabric masks and can be made from a variety of material. WHO recommends that they be three layers. The inner layer should be water absorbent, made of cotton or a cotton blend, while the outer layer should be water resistant and made of polypropylene, polyester or their blends. The middle layer should act as a filter and should be a synthetic and non-woven material, like polyproplylene or another cotton layer to increase absorption. WHO recommends avoiding elastic material, as it can stretch and degrade and has insufficient filtration ability. 

How do you safely wear a mask? 

WHO has released guidance for how to safely wear and remove a mask. It emphasizes the importance of not sharing masks. Before handling your mask, wash your hands with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand rub. Before putting it on, inspect the mask to ensure that it is clean and undamaged. When placing the mask on your face, make sure it covers your nose, mouth and chin. Make sure there are no gaps between the face and the mask. If you have facial hair, the US CDC recommended either shaving or trimming to prevent a gap forming between the mask and your face. Once you are wearing the mask, it is important to avoid touching it.

To remove your mask, you should wash your hands first. It is important not to touch the front of the mask. Take off the mask by removing it from the ear loops or untying it from behind. Wash your hands after you’ve removed the mask.

Do not re-use single-use masks. Discard them after each use and dispose of them immediately upon removal. If you’re using a fabric mask, wash it in soap or detergent and preferably hot water at least once a day. Alternatively, you can boil it in water for one minute. To store it, put the mask in a clean, resealable plastic bag. When you need to use it again, pull it out by the elastic loops or ties. 

Our goal is to provide you with fact checks that are as accurate as and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed crucial information, please CONTACT US.



The World Health Organization has changed its stance on wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic


Accurate as a whole (with reservations)

 June 30, 2020


Learn more about our fact-checking methodology HERE.

Do you have information to support or counter this fact-check?


Not enough data to know if Vitamin D should be used to treat or prevent COVID-19

Not enough data to know if Vitamin D should be used to treat or prevent COVID-19

Fact-checking whether professional athletes will receive the COVID-19 before others

Fact-checking whether professional athletes will receive the COVID-19 before others

View More