Surgical masks are pretty common in Taiwan as they are in many parts of Asia.

Before coming to Taiwan I knew from the news that during the SARS outbreak many people in Asia began wearing surgical masks. Still, I was shocked when I first arrived here to see people walking around with masks on their face like it was an every day sort of thing.

My understanding is that it became widespread due to the SARS and H1N1 epidemic scares a few years back. However, others have told me the tradition precedes these two epidemics.  A cursory search on-line hasn’t confirmed that, but whatever.

There are a number of reasons people wear them:

  • As a courtesy:  people will wear them if they are sick, or they think they are getting sick, to prevent the spread of disease.
  • To ward off others’ illnesses: people will wear them when they don’t want to get sick.
  • While driving because of the air pollution: people seem to think that this can help prevent the extreme air pollution from affecting their lungs so much.
  • To protect against pollen and allergies.
  • In the food service industry. (You won’t hear any complaints from me here. Everyone in the food industry should wear these things).
  • Pregnant women.

They are so popular that they come in all kinds of colors and designs. I routinely see my kids wearing them with Hello Kitty designs, teddy bears and kittens and all sorts of other cutesy themes.

I don’t think they are all that effective and  I definitely don’t think they help with the air pollution but other people swear by them.  There has been some research done on their efficacy. You can read about those results here (looks like they’re popular in Mexico now too), and here.

While they do help in preventing some germ transfer they are not foolproof.

And that’s assuming that they’re worn correctly which is hardly the case here. I see them dangling from people’s ears, constantly being raised or lowered over the nose as people talk and eat or smoke.  I see them fall to the ground and get popped right back over the mouth. Usually by kids, but that’s just gross anyway you cut it.  And you can bet that the non disposable ones aren’t being washed and decontaminated after every single use.

That hasn’t stopped them from being actively promoted though.

I saw this advertisement in the metro in January:

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they are useful or not. Its become a part of the culture.

One habit that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon and leads me to question if, for the sake of conformity, perhaps I shouldn’t buy my own.