The main clinical characteristics of COVID‐19 are respiratory symptoms that can lead to serious cardiovascular damages and severe worsening of other medical conditions. One of the major strategies in preparedness and response to COVID 19 is effective utilization of personal protective equipment (PPE) among which the masks of different kinds are on the top of the list especially for activities in the public places. However, the underlying mechanisms of masks in preventing virus transmission have not been well identified and the current experimental data still show inconsistent outcomes that may mislead the public. For instance, the early understanding of the mask functions was limited especially in the escalating phase of the COVID 19 pandemic, resulting in quite controversial remarks on masks. Although extensive studies in mask functions have been carried out ever since the COVID‐19 outbreaks, most of the investigations appear to have focused on exhalation isolation of individuals who may have been infected with the disease. Less emphasis was laid on inhalation protection from virus transmission, an important aspect that undergirds the public health policies and protective strategies. This review provides the most up‐to‐date information on the transmission modes of COVID‐19 virus in terms of droplets and aerosols. The roles of masks in disease prevention and transmission reduction are evaluated on various types, structures and functions. More important, both aspects of exhalation isolation and inhalation protection are discussed based on virus transmission modes and the effectiveness of different types of masks under varied environmental conditions.