Unsupported: No scientific evidence supports the claim that wearing face masks or gloves, or handwashing weakens the immune system. Instead, such measures effectively reduce the spread of infectious diseases.
FULL CLAIM: “Face masks, gloves, no sun, fear, vaccines, and washing our hands with synthetic soaps suppress our immune systems”
Widespread public health measures have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the spread of the disease. Posts like this meme on Instagram claiming that measures such as vaccination, wearing face masks or gloves, or frequent handwashing compromise a person’s immune system have circulated on social media platforms, receiving thousands of interactions.
The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work in a coordinated manner to protect a person’s body from infections. When a pathogen (a disease-causing microorganism) enters the body, it activates the innate immune response. This general and rapid response involves physical barriers, including the skin and mucous membranes (e.g. the lining of our mouth and nasal passages), as well as activation of phagocytic cells and proteins from the complement system that eliminate the pathogen. If the innate immune response fails to control the infection, the adaptive immune system kicks in. This targeted response recognizes and destroys specific pathogens either by activating the humoral immune response, which produces antibodies, or the cellular immune response, responsible for detecting and removing infected cells.
Contrary to the claim that it “suppresses the immune system,” vaccination trains the immune system and improves the body’s ability to defend itself against potentially dangerous pathogens, as Health Feedback explained in this previous review. Generating specific antibodies against a pathogen is a slow process that can take several days up to two weeks. By introducing a dead or weakened version of the pathogen, vaccination stimulates the humoral immune response, creating an immunological memory against that specific pathogen that enables the body to respond more rapidly and effectively if it encounters that pathogen in the future.
In the absence of a vaccine against COVID-19, international public health authorities recommend various public health measures to reduce the spread of the disease, including physical distancing, wearing a face mask, keeping adequate ventilation in indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and frequent handwashing. Scientific evidence does not support the claim that such measures weaken the immune system. This claim is based on the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that children require exposure to a variety of environmental microbes to stimulate the development of their immune system. According to this theory, excessive hygiene reduces this exposure, increasing the risk of allergic and autoimmune conditions. However, this hypothesis would not apply to adults, who already have a fully developed immune system.
Furthermore, claiming that face masks and frequent handwashing would reduce microbial exposure to the extent of immune dysfunction in both children and adults is inaccurate and misleading. The human body is constantly exposed to millions of microbes that live inside the body and on the skin’s surface, which comprise the microbiome. In addition, the body is exposed to microbes that come from the environment through the air, food, or water. While exposure to microbes is necessary for developing a healthy immune system, there is also evidence that contradicts certain assumptions of the hygiene hypothesis. For instance, not all exposure is helpful; exposure to disease-causing microorganisms is still harmful and therefore should be mitigated through measures such as handwashing. As Health Feedback explained in this review, public health measures do not eliminate environmental microbes, but only reduce the exposure to harmful pathogens and, therefore, the risk of infection.
Frequent handwashing is one of the most effective measures to prevent the spread of infections from one person to another. Similarly, wearing face masks reduces the release of respiratory droplets into the air by infected wearers (“source control”), while protecting healthy wearers from the inhalation of infectious droplets (“filtration for personal protection”). While face masks can cause discomfort or skin irritation, and excessive use of certain antiseptics may disrupt the natural skin microbiome, the benefits of these measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic outweigh their potential risks. In contrast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the general public wears gloves. This is because using the same pair of gloves for long periods of time or incorrectly removing them increases the risk of transmitting viral contamination from one surface to another.
Among the factors that the meme claims would weaken the immune system, only vitamin D deficiency and stress actually modulate the immune response[2,3]. Since regular sun exposure is the primary source of vitamin D, people located in northern latitudes have an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency in the winter season. Taking vitamin D supplements can compensate for this deficiency. Public health measures, such as lockdowns and physical distancing, likely lead to reduced sun exposure and increased stress for some people. However, in the absence of effective treatments or a vaccine, such interventions are currently the only measures that can reduce the spread of COVID-19. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and physical activity can help improve immune function.
In summary, scientific evidence does not support the claim that public health measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, such as face masks or hand hygiene, weaken the immune system. Other protective measures, such as vaccination, do not weaken the immune system, but instead protect the individual from future infections. These measures, together with a healthy lifestyle, can help individuals maintain functional immune systems.
- 1 – Larson et al. (2020) Skin Hygiene and Infection Prevention: More of the Same or Different Approaches? Clinical Infectious Diseases.
- 2 – Martens et al. (2020) Vitamin D’s Effect on Immune Function. Nutrients.
- 3 – Segerstrom and Miller. (2004) Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin.