This Halloween, wearing a mask won’t be such a novel experience. With the coronavirus pandemic motivating millions of people to adopt face coverings as a routine part of their daily lives, having a partially obscured face in public is no longer unusual. But before dressing up for some responsible trick-or-treating or a small family gathering, it’s important to remember how cloth masks and Halloween costume masks serve two very different purposes.
First, should kids even go trick-or-treating this year? According to Monica Gandhi, MD, associate chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital, the answer is an unequivocal yes. “Kids should definitely go trick-or-treating this year,” Gandhi tells Mental Floss. “We know how to protect kids and adults. It is by facial masking." (The CDC issued guidelines for celebrating Halloween safely.)
As you may have already guessed, the plastic or rubber Halloween masks intended to transform you from your regular self into Batman or Wonder Woman are not believed to offer protection against the spread of germs. “We do not know the ability of rubber or plastic to block viral particles,” Gandhi says.
It's probably not likely. "Halloween masks provide no protection," William Miller, MD, senior associate dean of research and an epidemiology professor at The Ohio State University, tells Mental Floss. "First, they often have a hole for the mouth and nose. Second, they don't fit tightly. No one should consider a Halloween mask as adequate protection."
That doesn't mean you necessarily need to leave the costume masks behind. “To be safe, I would recommend a simple two-ply cotton or surgical mask underneath the rubber or plastic costume mask to cover the nose and mouth when trick-or-treating,” Gandhi says. It's also possible to cover the outside of the mask with fabric, but there's no guarantee that a loose-fitting mask won't have openings elsewhere that could allow pathogens to enter. And unless you’re going as a socially-distancing Spider-Man, that could hurt the costume’s look.
There shouldn’t be any concern about an outer Halloween mask affecting the performance of the inner protective mask, Gandhi says. One exception might be if the costume mask is cumbersome and adjusting it shifts the position of the protective mask. For both adults and kids, it might be a good idea to test the dual mask fit for comfort and breathability before wearing it for extended periods. You also don’t want to make a habit of repeatedly touching your face to adjust it unless you’ve washed your hands first. In its new guidelines, CDC suggests swapping out the costume mask and protective mask under it for one Halloween-themed, breathable cloth mask.
Parents on the fence about taking their costumed kids door-to-door this year should check their local guidelines, which might place restrictions on the hours or places for collecting candy. Kids should travel with family and try to stick to houses that have set up outdoor candy stations. Leaving the collected candy untouched for a day or two, Miller says, will reduce the already low risk of viral transmission from the wrapper surface.
With a little caution, Halloween can still be fun. And if you’re undecided about wearing two masks, there’s a simple solution: Just go dressed as a health care worker.