How Effective are Face Masks in Preventing the Spread Of Coronavirus Disease?

Illustration of a family of four wearing facemasks.
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Whether it was part of a medical supplier’s overstock, borrowed from a friend in construction or just an old, repurposed T-shirt, face masks are quickly becoming the “new normal.” Many are being worn like they’re the centerpiece for society’s collective uniform. Although many may be unfazed by the mask’s continued prevalence in their wardrobe, it’s common to wonder whether or not the inconvenience is actually helping.

Several peer-reviewed studies, such as this one published in 2020, strongly suggest that wearing masks could significantly reduce the spread of the disease; however, not all types of facial coverings are created equal. And while even a bandana may be a better face covering than no covering at all, the mask’s shape and material have a lot to do with its effectiveness.

Common Types of Face Masks

Illustration of an older couple accepting groceries from a delivery man. Everyone is wearing a mask to help fend off coronavirus.
A facemask is an essential in protecting yourself and others from coronavirus/COVID-19.

Most people are familiar with a handful of different face masks: surgical, N95 respirator and cloth. Below, we’ll go into the pros, cons and effectiveness of each so you can decide which is best for your situation.

N95 Respirator

The N95 respirator is the most common facial covering worn by medical professionals and first responders. It’s made from a strong but flexible non-woven polypropylene material. The edges of the mask are designed to form a tight-fitting seal with the wearer’s skin, and it filters out 95% of airborne particles.

As opposed to surgical masks, the primary purpose of an N95 mask is to protect the wearer from the environment. Some N95 respirators include a valve that allows the wearer’s unfiltered air to pass through, making it easier to breathe.

Surgical

As the name implies, surgical masks are worn by surgeons when operating to prevent their respiratory bacteria from contaminating the patient. They’re made out of a fluid-resistant material designed to protect the wearer from splashes and sprays of bodily fluids.

The mask typically has a rectangular construction with a folded front, enabling it to adjust to different face sizes with a loose fit. Although protection against small airborne particles is limited, a recent study in Nature journal showed that surgical masks significantly reduced the passage of droplets containing coronavirus.

Cloth

Considering the wide variety of ways fabric can be woven, determining the effectiveness for cloth face covers can be difficult. Nonetheless, the CDC recommends wearing cloth face masks when in public. With the idea being a barrier of any kind could be beneficial, the CDC says cloth masks may prevent its wearer from spreading bacteria droplets when they cough, sneeze or talk.

Other Facial Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Although cloth facial coverings are recommended by the CDC for the general public, you may encounter a variety of other types of masks, each with benefits and drawbacks for safety and comfort.

  • KN95 respirator
  • P100 respirator (gas mask)
  • Full-length face shield
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus

KN95 masks are identical to N95 masks in most ways. The primary differences are that KN95 masks must be fit tested, and N95 masks have higher standards for breathability. Both reduce airborne particle transmission by at least 95%.

Typically worn by carpenters and construction workers, gas masks aren’t often chosen for protection against coronavirus. The mask covers the full face with tightly fitting edges. It’s important to use filters that are specifically designed for filtering small droplets and aerosols.

Face shields offer frontward protection but allow bacteria to escape around the edges. On the end of the protection spectrum, self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) are full face covers connected to clean air sources. SCBAs aren’t the most practical for general protection against coronavirus due to the combined weight of the equipment and the oxygen tank’s limited capacity.

Illustration showing the proper way to wear facemasks.
Do not fiddle with your mask or break its seal once you’ve put it on.

Maximizing Your Mask’s Potential

A broken tool is only marginally more useful than no tool at all. Here are three things to remember so that your mask can properly do its job:

  1. Clean it. The CDC recommendswashing cloth face masks in a bleach solution after every use. If you want to make a cloth face mask at home, you can check out the CDC’s guide.
  2. Wear it properly. Some masks and respiratorscould hinder your peripheral vision and performance of the task at hand. Nonetheless, to ensure that you (and those around you) are receiving maximum protection, it’s imperative that the mask fits appropriately snug with little movement and fully covers the nose and mouth.
  3. Shave. Facial hair can potentially prevent masks from creating a seal with the skin. For those adamant on keeping some hair on their face, the CDC published a graphic on the best facial hair stylesto not jeopardize a mask’s effectiveness.
Illustrated chart from the CDC on male facial hair and effective mask wear.
Source: CDC.

Although it’s no substitute for physical distancing and good personal hygiene, wearing a mask in public is a simple, accessible action we can all take to help flatten the curve.

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