Can Your Mask Be Hurting You? What You Need to Know.

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UPDATE 2020: A new negative affect of wearing masks for extended periods has come to light, this time from dentists who are beginning to see more cavities and gum disease since the higher use of masks. Dentists share my concern of continually breathing in your own microbes. We all have them in our mouths – they are an extension of your gut’s microbiome. If your microbiome is out of balance and you have more bad bacteria in your mouth than good bacteria, you could be making matters worse by wearing a mask and breathing through your mouth. If you have been wearing your mask for extended periods and you know you have potential dental issues, you may want to schedule a dentist appointment and get your teeth and gums checked out. In the mean time, breath through your nose when wearing a mask. See additional tips below.

Now that more and more cities, town and states are requiring masks in public places, I wanted to put out a few words of caution. The science is still not clear. Is a mask really beneficial? Does it truly prevent the spread of the virus? Can it cause more harm than good?

It is confusing, especially when the experts and government officials give us conflicting information, first telling us that masks were not necessarily protective and now telling us the opposite.* The truth may lay somewhere in between. And, it may depend on various factors.

As masks are required to work, go to school and be in public, it is time to consider some downsides of wearing masks, especially for longer periods of time. They can potentially hurt you. I am even more concerned about our children as they go back to school. I will explain below the possible negative effects and provide suggestions to minimize potential problems.

Possible Negative Side Effects of Wearing Masks

There are several possible negative side effects of wearing a mask. However, there are also things you can do to limit the detrimental effects.

  • Re-breathing Carbon Dioxide – Good oxygen levels are necessary for good health. Breathing quality oxygen oxygenates your blood, which then distributes oxygen throughout the body. When you wear a mask, it traps the carbon dioxide from your exhale, causing you to re-breathe this back into your body. This may be okay for shorter periods of time since your body needs some carbon dioxide, but over time breathing less oxygen may be detrimental, especially for some people.
  • Re-breathing Toxins – Exhaling is also one way your body gets rid of toxins. Your lungs are a channel of elimination just like your kidneys and bowels, so you may be re-breathing unwanted toxic vapors, further compromising your health. Additionally, if you have an amalgam (silver) filling, you definitely do not want to be chewing gum while wearing a mask. The act of chewing (as well as drinking warm liquids) causes these amalgams to off-gas the mercury in the filling(s). You do not want to be re-breathing this toxic gas back into your lungs or sinuses.
  • Worsening Symptoms If Already Infected – Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock also has serious concerns about people who might have the c-virus (or another respiratory microbe). If an infected person breaths this microbe into the mask, they might re-breath it into their upper respiratory tract or sinuses. It can also enter the brain through the olfactory nerves in your nose. The olfactory nerve is one pathway to the brain that people rarely consider, but I found multiple studies on this possibility when researching my dissertation on the brain several years ago. (Toxins and microbes can enter the brain through the nose, so much so that it is now recognized as one way of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, known as inhalation Alzheimer’s.) It may also explain the newer brain-related symptoms people are getting from the c-virus.
  • Mask Type and Quality – You are breathing into your lungs whatever material you are putting over your nose and mouth, so you need to be discerning. Some masks, for example, have added “antimicrobials,” which typically means that chemicals have been added to the mask. (These chemicals are not always listed on the package.) You will also want to avoid synthetic masks if you are wearing a mask long-term. Microfibers from polyester fabrics, synthetic and polypropylene-type filters, etc. in your mask can be breathed into your lungs, especially if you are washing and reusing the masks. The fibers break down over time. Also check the mask’s source and country of origin since some foreign countries have more lenient regulations and less sanitary work environments. (You can find some shocking videos online.) My personal preference is 100% cotton masks that are washable. You can find them online if you search. Better yet, make the mask yourself so you can control the type of fabric.
  • Local Exceptions – Be sure to read the exceptions in your local mask-wearing requirements. For example, in Nashville, children 12 and under are not required to wear a mask. Other exceptions include those with medical exemptions, when inside a private vehicle, within education facilities, working alone in a non-public space, when eating/drinking in a restaurant, while outdoors and maintaining social distancing, or in a place of worship. (One exception I find particularly interesting is that no masks are required in State or Federal buildings.)
  • Health Exceptions – Most mask mandates include medical exemptions to cover people whose health may be compromised by a face mask. Most commonly, this health issue will be related to a lung or respiratory problem. If you have compromised lungs, be sure to speak with your health care practitioner to see if wearing a mask could compound your problem. Examples include asthma and COPD. In these cases, you may be better off not wearing a mask. Other examples of health issues that may fall in this category include panic disorder, mental health issues, and certain cardiovascular problems. If you are not breathing in enough good oxygen because of a mask, you could be further compromising your health.
  • Pregnant Women and Small Children – Pregnant women should also think twice before wearing a mask for lengthy periods. When you are pregnant, you are literally breathing for two. When your blood oxygen levels go down, especially for a longer period of time, there is potentially less oxygen to the fetus. Limiting oxygen intake in small children can also be a problem and they are less likely to notice something is off should their oxygen levels get too low. Another reason to continue to check yourself and your children with a pulse oximeter (see section below).
  • Heat and Exercise Compounds Issues – Definitely do not wear a mask, at least not long-term, when you are outside and/or exercising. When you are exerting yourself, a face mask can make it even more difficult to breathe, especially in the summer’s heat when the mask can accumulated more condensation. You are also making more carbon dioxide, which you do not want to be breathing back in for extended periods of time. Instead, you will want to get as much fresh air as possible. When you are in nature or working in the yard, especially, you want to breathe in the natural oxygen being emitted from grass, plants, shrubs, trees, etc. And, don’t forget the healing effects of sunlight – it has been proven to help recovery rates and protect against the c-virus.
  • Emotional and Mental Consequences – We also need to consider the emotional and mental consequences of mask wearing, especially in our children. Without the typical social cues you see on someone’s face when talking with and reacting to another person, communication can be hindered. There are some experts who are concerned about the long-term effects of social distancing and mask wearing, not unlike what researchers are discovering through the use of screens and digital dementia.
  • Social Connection and Your Nervous System – Another health concern when wearing masks long-term is the effect on your nervous system. Dr. Stephen Porges has identified the vagus nerve as key to helping your body switch gears between the sympathetic nervous system (stressful “flight or fight” response) and parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). The vagus nerve is one of the most complicated of our cranial nerves, connecting multiple organs like the lungs, heart, and digestion to our brain. Emotionally, this nerve is tied to the act of compassion. The vagus nerve also physically connects to our mouth and eyes, helping to trigger and respond to safety cues from others through their smile and eye contact, but only if we can see them. Learn more here.

Professional Grade Mask Versus Non-regulated Masks

The first argument I hear when someones defends the safety of wearing a mask is that surgeons and other health care workers wear them and often for lengthy periods of time without a problem. But consider the following.

  • They typically get a fresh mask with every use and replace masks between seeing patients.
  • They are using quality, surgical and/or medical grade masks.
  • They are in a sterile environment, using clean hands or fresh cloves to put on their masks.
  • They use them in air-conditioned spaces (often with quality filtered air and/or oxygen pumped into a room as required in many hospital settings).
  • Their bodies have had time to get use to wearing a mask during training, etc.

You should also know that the protection of wearing masks in a medical setting has been questioned for decades, especially surgical masks that are typically looser than medical grade N95 masks.

Regardless, the list above is a stark contrast to the use of masks by the general public with no training in how to select or use them. The typical person is:

  • reusing the same mask multiple times, often contaminating them with multiple microbes or leaving them in cars that can be musty (especially with summer air-conditioner use).
  • taking them off and on with hands that are not always sanitized. It is not uncommon to see people take their mask out of their purse or pants pocket as they walk from their car towards a store.
  • purchasing and/or making masks with no consideration given to quality of fabrics, possible toxins in the materials, etc.
  • wearing them in the heat and/or when exercising which is especially dangerous and can cause your blood oxygen levels to drop further, especially as moisture builds up in the mask.
  • going from not wearing a mask to wearing one all day without building up resistance.

According to Dr. J.E. Williams, an N95 medical mask might be the best protection, but he also says that these masks are not made to wear for long periods of time because it does restrict oxygen. (Learn more in this interview here. Mask details start at minute 9:00.) Even Dr. Joseph Mercola has reversed his opinion of wearing masks as he explains in detail here.

Everyone Should Have a Pulse Oximeter

This is where having a pulse oximeter is crucial. (You can find them at your local pharmacy for about $25.) Truth be told, each person is different. If you have never worn a mask before this pandemic, you really do not know how your body will react to having your nose and mouth covered for lengthy periods of time.

I know that I feel a shortness of breath (known as oxygen hunger) after about 5 to10 minutes and feel the need to pull the mask away from my face to get a good gulp of air. I have heard this from many others as well. Some are reporting dizziness, lightheadedness, and/or headaches after wearing their mask, which can be an early warning sign of low blood oxygen levels. (These symptoms could also be a stress signal from your body as a result of having to wear the mask.)

Really, the only way to know for sure if a mask is truly hurting your oxygen levels is to use a pulse oximeter. I explain what one is and how to use it here. I suggest checking yourself multiple times a day, especially if you are wearing a mask for long periods of time. If you are not getting enough oxygen into your lungs when wearing a mask, it will show up in your blood.

Final Thoughts and Considerations

There are still many unknowns about wearing a mask, especially for long periods of time. The science is definitely not clear. And keep in mind that from the few studies that have been done, none were done with children of compromised health.

There are a wide variety of masks available and how you react to a particular mask will be different for each person. Some will react to the feel of the mask or the social stigma of not being able to see a person’s face, others will react to the lack of available oxygen or the additional toxic load to the body. If you are already sick, you could make your health worse by wearing a mask.

My top suggestions:

  • Most importantly, try to arrange your life so you can wear a mask as little as possible. Work at home when you can. Take classes online when they are offered. Do not wear masks when at home, when working in your yard, or driving in your car. Exercise and take walks away from others so you do not need a mask. (If a family member is sick, keep them separated from the rest of the family.)
  • Make your own masks or find 100% cotton masks. Organic cotton would be optimal, but I have yet to find these. And, be sure to wash any fabric before making a mask, since new fabrics often have chemicals in them.
  • Practice wearing different masks at home and taking measurements of your blood oxygen using the pulse oximeter. (Also take readings when you are not wearing a mask so you have some base line measurements.)
  • When wearing a mask make sure your hands are clean before putting it on and when taking it off. If you plan to reuse it, only handling it by the ear or head straps. Better yet, spray the inside of your mask with BrioTech (see this video) or an antimicrobial essential oil like Thieves Oil mixed in purified water (typically 6 to 8 drops in 2 oz. of water).
  • Optimally, it is best to use a mask only once. Keep the mask in a sanitary location prior to use. (I keep our washed masks in a zip lock bag.) If using fabric masks, keep multiple ones on hand and wash them after each use. Wash them daily with an essential oil like tea tree oil or Thieves oil for natural antimicrobial protection. (Again, it is best not to wash and reuse masks with synthetic fibers like polyester because these will break down over time in the wash and can be breathed in when wearing.)
  • If you need to wear a mask for longer periods of time, like for work or school, have multiple masks with you so you can change them out throughout the day. Also keep a pulse oximeter with you to check yourself regularly. If you find your oxygen levels low, go outside and do some deep breathing. Maybe try a different mask or a mask with fewer layers.*
  • If you start feeling dizzy, light-headed, etc. remove your mask or at least temporarily uncover your nose until you can get outside to fresh air.
  • You can possibly increase your resistance to constantly breathing in carbon dioxide, similar to training professional athletes as explained here. However, keep in mind that athletes are not wearing masks all day and learning how to do this will not negate the possibility of other mask issues like breathing in toxins or reinfecting yourself with germs. For mask anxiety issues, especially in your children, check out this video.
  • You may consider using a face shield instead of a mask, as being suggested by some schools with younger kids. At least mouths and facial expressions can be seen. Check out Dr. Ben Lynch interviewing his son trying the shield.

Please be careful. Be smart and use your common sense. Personally, I am more concerned about the masks then the c-virus. Each person and family needs to make mask decisions that are right for them.

At least now you have some additional information to help you make those decisions with additional tips to make masks safer. And, of course, your top health priority should be to continue to support and build your immune system, which is a life style commitment. This is the best defense against the c-virus (or any pathogen).

* Even the studies listed on the CDC website, which are being used by municipalities across the country to encourage the use of masks, are inconclusive. See this video for more information. If you want to contact your school or school district with your concerns, see this video by Dr. Lynch for ideas. If mask wearing becomes a health issue for you, there are legal options available as explained here.

This article was written by Sharon K. Harmon, PhD, founder of Life Design for Health. As a “Health Designer” she has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health by looking at the body from a unique perspective. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website, including a healing foods and pantry list and recipes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and GMO-free. She is also passionate about EMF safety.

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