A man in a face mask walks by a sign posted on a boarded up restaurant in San Francisco, California on April 1, 2020 (AFP / Josh Edelson)

Post gives inaccurate surgical mask instructions during COVID-19 pandemic

Copyright © AFP 2017-2023. All rights reserved.

A post shared thousands of times on Facebook during the COVID-19 pandemic says disposable surgical masks should be worn “colored side out” if a person is sick. The claim is false; surgical masks are not reversible, a major US manufacturer of the products says.

“While at the doctors office today, we were informed by a Nurse the proper way to use a medical mask,” says the text of the post, shared on March 25, 2020. “Colored side out if you’re sick and do not want to spread your germs around. White side out (this is the filter part) for when you’re not sick and you want to stop the germs from getting in.”

A screenshot of the text in the post taken on April 17, 2020

In January, AFP Fact Check debunked similar misinformation circulating in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 

Prestige Ameritech, the largest domestic surgical mask maker in the US, said by email that surgical masks are not reversible. 

“Masks have a front and a back. For proper performance, they should be worn correctly,” the vice president of the company, Mike Bowen, told AFP.

“Generally speaking, the colored side should face outward. I suppose that someone somewhere for some reason might make a mask with a colored inner layer, but I’ve never seen one,” Bowen added. 

If the mask is all white and does not have a distinctive, pre-bent nosepiece, Bowen said “the side that should face the wearer is the side where the edge of the bottom-most folded pleat points toward the ceiling.” 

Different countries have recommended different approaches to mask wearing during the pandemic, which has left roughly 165,000 people dead worldwide and pushed some health authorities to recommend face coverings to help slow its spread.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), medical masks cannot currently protect against the novel coronavirus -- which causes the COVID-19 disease -- “when used alone.”

The WHO’s latest guidance on masks is available here.

A screenshot of a WHO graphic taken on April 20, 2020

A surgical mask is “not considered respiratory protection,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says in a graphic, as it does not “provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles.”

The CDC currently does recommend the use of face coverings for the general public to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but not to keep the wearer from becoming infected.

A graphic shows how to make and use a homemade face covering to help prevent the spread of coronavirus (AFP Graphics)

Surgical masks are currently considered “critical supplies” by the CDC and are reserved for “healthcare workers and other medical first responders.”

For more of AFP Fact Check’s work on claims surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our coronavirus verification hub.