The History of Masks for Health

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Adam Navis and Katy Blake look at how people throughout history have worn masks. These small pieces of cloth have been a part of culture for a long time.

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Adam Navis.

Voice 2 

And I’m Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1 

A young woman sits at a table at home. She cuts some cotton cloth. Then she uses her sewing machine to make something special. It is something that will protect both her and other people. She is making a face mask to cover her mouth and nose.

Voice 2 

People around the world cover their mouths and noses for health reasons. Doctors wear face masks when they operate. Many people wear masks to protect them from poor air quality. But in 2020, many more people around the world started to wear masks. They did this to protect each other from the COVID-19 virus. Today’s Spotlight is on wearing masks. We look at the long history of wearing masks for health reasons.

Voice 1 

Early records show that some individuals wore masks for health reasons hundreds of years ago. Leonardo da Vinci was a famous artist of the 15th century. He used paint that contained poisonous chemicals. He covered his face with a wet cloth to protect his lungs from those poisons.

Voice 2 

People also wore masks in the 17th century. At that time, a deadly sickness or plague came to Europe. People did not understand how disease was spread. But some doctors wore strange masks over their faces. The masks were shaped like the head of a bird. The long pointed beak contained herbs. These sweet-smelling plants were designed to protect the doctor from the smell of the disease and dead bodies.

a plague doctor mask
A Plague doctor mask; Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay
Voice 1 

In the 19th century, doctors and scientists worked to understand how disease spread between people. They began to understand that the human breathing system could carry and spread germs and disease.

Voice 2 

Based on this new knowledge, scientists suggested something new to surgeons or doctors who operated on patients. They suggested surgeons should cover their nose and mouth with thin material called gauze. When a person breathes out, he can expel bacteria. But the gauze would stop this bacteria. It would protect any wound from being infected by it. By the 1920s, all surgeons wore masks to operate.

Voice 1 

By then, masks were also used as a treatment to prevent disease. In 1910, in Manchuria China a serious plague broke out. Wu Lien-teh from Malaya worked there. He developed a mask made from gauze and cotton that was tied behind the ears. These masks saved the lives of many doctors. The general population also used the masks to avoid getting the disease. A few years later this method of disease prevention had to be used again. That time, people in more than one country had to use it.

Voice 2 

In 1918, World War I ended. In that same year a terrible disease spread around the world. This global disease was a deadly flu virus. Over a period of two years, it infected almost one third of the world’s population. Experts estimate that over 50 million people died from the virus. Many governments required everyone to wear masks on public transport and at work. Some people did not want to do this. In San Francisco USA, the government told people, ‘Wear A Mask and Save Your Life.’ Health experts said wearing a mask did not just protect them. It helped to protect others around them.

A policeman warns a man to get a flu mask;
A policeman warns a man to get a flu mask, 1918; California State Library
Voice 1 

In the middle of the 20th century, people started to wear masks for another health reason. In some countries, industry and high levels of traffic led to poor air quality. In many parts of Asia, people wear masks to protect them from polluted air. For example, in the Philippines and Vietnam, motorcycle riders wear masks in heavy traffic.

Voice 2 

In many countries in Asia people consider it normal to wear a mask when out in public. In 2017, Kei from Asian Boss spoke to young Japanese people about why they wear masks:

Voice 3 

‘It is considered good behaviour. You are not spreading your germs or bacteria around.’

Voice 4 

‘I put it on because the air smells bad.’

Voice 2 

Other Japanese people wear masks for reasons not connected with health. Some people use masks as a social barrier. One young man told Kei,

Voice 5 

‘I put my mask on because I feel people will not notice me so much. That makes me feel less worried.’

Pdeople in Japan wearing masks
Image by djedj from Pixabay
Voice 1 

So many people in Asia wore masks that designers of clothes started to make masks to match clothes. Famous designers used international fashion events to show their masks. In 2015, Chinese designer Masha Ma included face masks covered with jewels at a fashion show.

Voice 2 

But in other parts of the world people did not normally wear masks. Some of the young people Kei spoke to were shocked to discover that people in the West did not wear a mask even if sick.

Voice 1 

In 2020, the attitude of people in the West changed. A deadly new virus called COVID-19, or coronavirus, spread around the world. The World Health Organisation advised people how to deal with coronavirus. This included information about the need to wear masks. If people could not keep a physical distance from each other they had to wear masks in public places. The organisation explained that masks can prevent someone else from being infected.

Voice 2 

People all over the world started to wear masks to protect each other. Some countries made it the law that people had to wear a mask in public. But not everyone owned a mask and sometimes masks were difficult to buy. Some governments told people to make their own masks.

Voice 1 

Spotlight’s Liz Waid is one person who made masks. She lives in the USA where it was not common to wear a mask before coronavirus. As coronavirus spread around the world, Liz started to make masks. She made over 500 cloth masks for family, friends, and local schools and organisations. Every weekend, and many nights after work, she sat at home and sewed and made masks. Liz explains how she felt about making masks.

Liz sews masks at home
Liz Waid, sewing masks at home
Liz Waid

‘I know that homemade masks are not a perfect solution to fighting coronavirus. But they can make a difference if everyone wears them. It makes me feel good to know that I am part of the solution. I am helping people in this simple way.’

Voice 2 

Do you wear a face mask? Is wearing a mask common in your culture? Tell us about it. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at Visit us on YouTube at

Voice 1 

The writer of this programme was Katy Blake. The producer was Liz Waid. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for the programme and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this programme again, and read it, on the internet at This programme is called ‘The History of Masks for Health’.

Voice 2 

Visit our website to download our free official App for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight programme. Goodbye.


Is it common to wear a mask in your culture? Do you wear a mask?

Join the discussion

  • Thanks a lot for this interesting topic. My great respact Liz Waid for her work. I’m from Ukraine. Now we have law about wearing masks in public places and public transport. Unfortunately, some people break this law and don’t wear masks.

  • in Hungary, wearing mask is not too frequently thing, but covid 19 has changed our life and almost everyone has been using mask.
    Personally I think Liz’s action is marvellous because she helps people, schools. We should fallow this nice example all over the world.

  • Very interesting and useful topic in this historical period. It is a notable contribution to encouraging the use of individual protection devices even when the covid-19 is over. The masks made by Liz Waid are beautiful and many would wear them even if they weren’t needed. There is a difficulty with eyeglasses that fog up, but there are excellent tips on the internet to overcome this problem.

  • I have been using face masks, but it’s not common in my culture. I have a chinese friend who told me about coronavirus when it’s started in China. She had advised me to wear masks, but i answered her that it was so weird in my country. Criminals used to use masks, now all over population has been using it though. Sometimes, the masks are oppressive, but they help to health and are a good way to social barrier.

  • In Korea, before breaking out covid-19, people normally wear face masks if they catch a cold. And many celebrities, especially members of boy and girl groups wear masks to hide their private lives when they hang out or go out with someone. So it made a fad to young koreans. We can often see a lot of young ages wearing masks regardless of season. One more, lots of korean women wear masks to protect their skin from the sun’s UV rays. Flawless skin that means there aren’t any freckles and spots and one’s face is more white is a new trend and a symbol of wealth in Korea. I think wearing face masks is common to koreans.

      • Before, it was a button to download the text fast, and also the audio
        it was very helpful that
        i was download the text and print it in a paper(because i prefer reading in papers), andin same time, i play the audio on my phone
        Anyway, thank you so much for this Website, i learn english from it 🙂

  • Thanks for this topic. It’s very useful for everyone to know the history of face mask. I ‘m very enjoying with topices of spotlingt. My skill’s listening is improved a lot. Hope you will have mang topic intering in the future!

  • No in our society people don’t care about Corona and everyday they went to their work without mask ,one reason is our are poor and they are forced and another reason is that Corona time become long and they became tired.

  • yes it is very common nowdays to wear face mask because of Corna virus .. or we can say Covid 19 . i usually wear it in my work because i am in direct contact with people w either in staff room or in classes

  • Hello ,
    Yes , I am wearing face mask
    In our country its not common before , but nowadays, more familiar specially during coronavirus period
    We need more of audio episodes
    I like your way and your speed ..

  • In my country (Saudi Arabia) we used to wear a mask before covid-19 because of the weather in the summer sometimes we have
    dusty weather so we wear a mask .

    Yes we do actually you barely can see someone who didn’t

    Thank you so much Liz waid ❤️ for this great work.

  • Congratulations for the great topic! In Brazil, unfortunately, we have a crazy man as president, so neither he nor his followers have wore a mask.

  • Yes , we are muslims live in the middle east ,alot of people wear masks due to hot dry whether .
    I started wear mask after covid 19

  • in my country that’s Saudi Arabia, people here wear a mask due to the procedures implemented by the government. On the other hand, the ministry of health increased the awareness of people by advising them to wear a mask and keep a distance between each other to protect them from being infected. If people could not wear a mask they will be punishment then getting a financial penalty which estimated 260 $.

  • yes , we are very exhausted about that coronavirus , but it’s really an opportunité to practice one of our hobis and learn one of our favorite langage , for me it’s time to think the life is not easy , we can do what we want if our god want that . I’m very happy about this part of listing and reading and i wish you the best .

  • I haven’t heard these sorts of Fruitful information about using masks in the old days , nevertheless It was normal between people ,specially in rural communities, they covered their mouth and nose by piece of cloth in order to keep from dust or other….
    In Iran using mask becomes norm among people that protect themselves and others from Corona viruses.
    people seldom or rarely had been using mask before Corona viruses , might be the time of the contamination of weather .
    if people are interested in wearing masks, they wouldn’t have been infected viruses very easily .
    To my prospective wearing mask could protect us from different types of diseases ,
    I highly recommend it .

  • In 2020, yes, all of the people in my country put on nose and mouth masks, but for me no, I don’t put the mask because I put Negab, I think it’s saving.

  • Hello
    Firstly thank you for sharing that episode.
    For the first question you I used to wear mask because I work at hospital as a nurse but in these days every one wearing mask because the pandemic so that good to see all people following the rules to save them health

  • In the past wear mask not common in my culture but, now it’s common and all people in my society should wear mask to Protect themself and other people.

  • Yes, wearing a mask while going out is almost an indispensable part of our lives,
    protect ourselves and everyone around us, thank you so much for the lesson!

  • Thank you for this.I’m from Viet Nam and we does the law of wearing mask very good
    and we totally control covid

  • No it’s not common to wear a mask in my culture ,,, yes of course because I trying to protect our family and the community

  • In my country you can’t leave your house If you don’t wear mask, I think this is the advantage point from Covid- 19 because I really like to wear mask.

  • I’m from Vietnam, as they said in this episode, my country has so poor air quality. That means we wear a mask commonly. However, when the COVID-19 started to spread hard, the rate of wearing masks here is much more high than ever.

  • yes, I am sometimes wearing a mask when I go out, but in my country wearing a mask is not common, but for me, I think wearing a mask is necessary for health, especially with the increase in the numbers of infected with coronavirus

  • Yes I wear a mask sometimes when I go out

    In Some areas people wear a mask
    And other reigon did not wear it but my government in begging of the spread of the virus, impose penalties on people who did not wear the mask

  • yes, sometimes I wear a mask but some people in mu country wear a mask and some did not my government imposed a penalty when the virus got worse

  • In my country, we use mask to protect our healthy and skin. Since the Covid 19 has appeared, all of people required wear mask. There are many kind of masks which you can choose include masks made from many differ meterials. Medical masks and Cloth masks are common in my country. They help us protect my healthy. Especially, when we talk to others. Ability to spread virus in the air is so highly. The best way to prevent virus is wear masks. But in fact, there are some people low awareness who not wear masks when they go out in the public. The government release the policy to monetary fine about 2 milion VND or more. In my opinion, this is the best way to punish them. I always wear mask when i go out. It helps me protect my skin, dirty and especially virus when i talk to others in the period Covid 19 has been taking place. I hope everyone should protect our healthy by the smallest way is wear mask. And i wish the covid 19 will finish soon.

  • In my culture, it is very common to wear a mask, and it is an integral part of our daily lives. It is necessary because it protects yourself as well as your health; everyone wears a mask for a variety of reasons, such as the belief that people will not notice them as much, or masks may be worn as fashion accessories; I wear masks for the same reason, which is to protect myself from harm.

  • Now, I think that people all around the world are no longer surprised when they see someone wearing a mask. When dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, wearing a mask is very essential, if not mandatory. Wearing a mask not only allows you to defend yourself, but it also serves to protect others. Of course, when I go out before the epidemic, I always wear a mask. Even now, when the pandemic hasn’t occurred yet, the vast majority of people in our area still wear masks. Taking public transportation is very common in my country. Motorbike and cars are often used to transport people to and from work, school, and other destinations. This is the source of the traffic congestion, and the air is thick with smoke and dust. As a result, they must wear a mask. So here I am, wearing a mask every time I leave the house since it has become a habit. In reality, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as many people believe.

  • Unfortunately some people in my country looks at the face mask as a weakness and the person who wear it is coward but during coronavirus pandemic alot of people started wearing face masks and not interested in what the people saying and also alot of them still wearing face masks in public places even after coronavirus pandemic.

  • Masks is very important especially in this covid 19 season. It’s really useful. Thanks to people who created this item.

  • I so exciting when see Liz Waid in this topic. Vietnamese people also do that all over the world. In my country, people often wear masks in public. Therefore, when the Covid 19 appear, they wear it easy and not enforcing. I hope people around the world will strongly fight that disease.

  • You have placed images interspersed with the text. That didn’t exist before and now, with this change, it’s very good, as the images enrich the story and increase concentration. Congratulations on the right decision.

  • When spread the COVID-19 in my country the government put laws on wearing a mask in the public place. People wearing a mask because make the looking them pretty. The wearing a mask consider good idea and behavior healthy. I wish in wear a mask a prevention disease. Advice should the person avoid crowd place .

  • Not is really common to wear mask in my culture before coronavirus but when coronavirus comes to my country the government made the law that you should wear mask and who does not wear a mask he will pay afine .

  • thanks, spotlight for let information about masks. I shall wear the everyday mask and say to other people that if we will wear masks so we shall make save our own and other life. very very thankful full spotlight English

  • no, actully i hadn’t weared a mask since corona virua period because in my contry most of people don’t wearing the masks

  • It’s common to wear a mask in my culture. I don’t remember when I wear mask in public to cover the mouth and nose for health reasons. During Covid time we must to wear mask anywhere. At that time, masks were difficult to buy and expensive. To me marks are usefull prevent disease.

  • Actually, wearing masks wasn’t common in my country Algeria before coronavirus, it was limited only for infirmier and doctors. last period, we had a terrible healthy experience with COVID-19 and we dealth with by wearing masks such a main procedure so what I’m thinking is we should spreare this kind of around world to avoid cautching by similar viruses.

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