Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

People who wore face coverings or masks outside of the home, and were more exposed to infection due to their circumstances, had ‘significantly’ lower rates of COVID-19 infection, according to research published in BMJ Open today, led by Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

Picture depicting people wearing masks

Although it has been widely asserted that face coverings protect others, rather than the wearer, this large-scale study found a clear link between wearing a face covering outside the home and infection.

The study links individuals’ and households’ ability to follow non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) often known as COVID behavioural interventions, using the largest and most representative dataset to date in the UK, including people from different ethnic and age groups.

Using the COVID Infection Study (CIS), study participants were asked to complete a short questionnaire, as well as taking regular COVID tests. Respondents were asked to reveal how often they worked outside the home, how easy it was to maintain social distance in their workplace, whether they took public transport and whether they had direct contact with others on a day-to-day basis.

This large-scale study found a clear link between wearing a face covering outside the home and infection

According to the study, ‘Wearing a face covering outside was a significant predictor of a lower chance of infection before mid-December 2020 in the UK, when a stricter second lockdown was implemented.’

The study found there was a higher rate of infections among those who lacked autonomy to follow COVID behavioural measures and did not comply with wearing a face covering.

Author Professor Melinda Mills says, ‘Lack  of  compliance  to  COVID behavioural measures  has  often been  positioned  as  an  attitude  or  choice. Yet there are large groups of people who, due to their household or employment circumstances, cannot follow measures to work from home, engage in physical distancing at the workplace or avoid public transportation. This, in turn, means that they have a higher exposure to becoming infected.

'The inability for some groups of people to follow behavioural interventions exacerbates existing health inequalities and we showed that face coverings are one measure that can mitigate this unequal exposure.’

There are large groups of people who, due to their household or employment circumstances, cannot follow measures to work from home, engage in physical distancing at the workplace or avoid public transportation. This...means they have a higher exposure to becoming infected

Professor Melinda Mills

The team found, ‘The  level  of  autonomy  to  adhere  to  behavioural interventions does not  predict  COVID- 19  infection  alone,  but  rather the risk of infection is diminished when individuals wear face  covering/masks.’

The study concludes, ‘Wearing  a  face  covering  or  mask  outside  the  home  can  reduce the unequal effects of exposure to COVID- 19 due to individual and employment circumstances.'

Professor Mills adds, ‘Using a very large individual and household sample and COVID swab tests, we showed that the inability for certain groups such as women in large households or those working in occupations where it is hard to maintain physical distancing were protected from infection during key periods in 2020 in the UK’.

The Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science (LCDS) (www.demographicscience.ox.ac.uk) was set up in 2019 to build an internationally recognized and interdisciplinary centre of demographic science that will disrupt, realign and raise the value of demography in science and society. For more information about the Trust, please visit www.leverhulme.ac.uk and follow the Trust on Twitter @LeverhulmeTrust