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Asia’s Obsession With Surgical Masks

Why do so many Asians wear surgical masks when they are in public?  

I have heard people comment and ask this question many times when at the airport or when traveling. I decided to investigate this practice and I learned that these masks serve multiple purposes. They are used as a protective measure against germs and smog and are also worn to make a fashion statement.

The practice of wearing surgical masks in public originated in Japan during the early 20th century. First, the Japanese began wearing these masks to protect themselves from a fatal influenza epidemic, which killed millions worldwide. Then, many wore facemasks again after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which covered the nation in smoke. The practice became a custom after a second flu epidemic hit Japan in the 1930s.

Eventually, surgical masks gained popularity in China and Korea as well. This practice seems to have gained traction in East Asia because Asian cultures highly value respecting others.   This means being conscious about not getting others sick if you are sick.

Although some Asians wear surgical masks to protect against the transmission of germs, there is not very strong evidence that these masks are completely effective in blocking viruses. It is important to note, surgical masks were created to block larger droplets that may contain viruses. However, they were not designed to block the small particle aerosols we breathe, which may have viruses.

There may be a spiritual/cultural reason for why surgical masks have become popular in Asia. Many Asian cultures have been deeply influenced by Taoism. Taoism emphasizes the importance of the breath and its relationship to good health. An article by Quartz mentions that Taoism’s focus on the breath may have influenced the practice of wearing surgical masks in Asia.

These days, Asians also wear surgical masks in public to protect themselves from cough- inducing air pollution. In places like China, this is a particularly common practice. According to NBER, China has 40 times the amount of pollution than what the World Health Organization considers to be safe for humans to breath. To get a better sense of what this means, consider the following: During one of the worst air pollution days in Beijing in 2013, residents of Beijing were breathing in air that was 16% worse than the air in U.S. smoking lounges.

Recently, surgical masks have  become a way for Asians to express themselves. An article by Japan Today explains that some Japanese wear surgical masks in public when they are feeling self-conscious –when they want to hide something, like negative emotions or perhaps a blemish. In addition, Japanese women have been known to wear surgical masks when out and about in order to seem “mysterious” and intriguing to others.

The fashion world has taken notice of this custom and responded by designing fashion -forward surgical masks. Asian designers, like Yin Peng, have presented surgical masks at China Fashion Week. Stylish surgical masks are also available by high street brands. Companies like Tutem Masks and Vogmask have brought stylized, printed surgical masks stateside.


Would you wear a surgical mask in public? Do you think this practice will become popular in the West?


Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development.  Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.  





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