Scientists say wearing a face mask won’t make us more reckless with other hygiene measures

None of the studies revealed a link between mask-wearing and a reduction in hand hygiene. (Shutterstock)
None of the studies revealed a link between mask-wearing and a reduction in hand hygiene. (Shutterstock)

Face masks do not make wearers more reckless with other hygiene measures, new research suggests.

Face coverings are now mandatory in all UK shops and on public transport.

Some scientists have raised concerns over the potential for ‘risk compensation’, whereby a false sense of security in one safety measure, such as face masks, could lead to complacency and a lack of engagement with other safety measures, like hand washing.

However, after looking into existing studies, researchers have not found evidence to support the hypothesis that the use of face coverings result in less hand washing.

What’s the science behind it?

Publishing the findings in the journal BMJ Analysis, the team of researchers revealed their strategy.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, a co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge explained, “We don’t have any direct evidence from the current pandemic, so all we have done is look at, ‘Well, what existing evidence is there?’”

The team studied 22 reviews upon the impact of mask wearing in regards to other respiratory viruses, such as the flu. These included six randomised controlled trials which also studied hand hygiene.

The team says none of the studies revealed a link between mask-wearing and a reduction in hand hygiene. Two of the studies actually showed face coverings could even increase hand washing.

Corroborating studies

Marteau added that the results aligned with other studies, one of which looked into the link between the use of helmets for skiing and cycling, and a possible increase in risky behaviours. Similar to the six studies looking at face coverings, there was no clear evidence that such a link exists in these sports.

Marteau said, “That’s not to say risk compensation doesn’t exist – it certainly exists at an individual level. [...] But we can’t find any good evidence for risk compensation happening at a population level.”

The team concluded, “The concept of risk compensation, rather than risk compensation itself, seems the greater threat to public health through delaying potentially effective interventions.”

‘Premature claim’

However the six studies in question were not made with coronavirus in mind nor did they look into whether wearing masks directly influenced hand washing.

Robert Dingwall, a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, believes it is too soon to settle on such a conclusion in regards to the current coronavirus pandemic, saying, “It certainly seems premature to claim that risk compensation theory has been ‘laid to rest’ or that the concern should not be taken seriously in better-designed and more balanced studies of this intervention.”