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Sure, any face covering is better than nothing when it comes to staying safe during COVID-19. But we’d all rather wear one that’s more protective than less.
As you may know, N95 respirators — which are what health care professionals wear on the job — are in short supply. They’re also harder to breathe through comfortably for long periods This is a result of the tight weave and close-fitting design, which is exactly why they do such a good job of protecting the person wearing the mask from getting sick. Surgical masks, which are similar but don’t protect against the tiniest aerosolized particles like N95 masks do, should also generally be reserved for health care professionals.
For the rest of us, cloth face coverings are often the best option. Cloth masks are designed to stop respiratory particles that you release when you talk, cough, or sneeze from traveling through the air and infecting people around you. Your mask protects others; other people’s masks protect you.
While any bandana, gaiter, or homemade mask made out of a T-shirt will meet the basic criteria for a cloth face covering, not all cloth masks are equally protective, science shows.
To figure out what makes a cloth covering most useful, Australian scientists used a special LED lighting system and high-speed camera “to capture the light scattered by droplets and aerosols expelled during speaking, coughing, and sneezing while wearing different types of masks.”
The researchers had a healthy volunteer speak, cough, and sneeze without wearing a mask, then while wearing a one-layer cloth mask, a two-layer cloth mask, and a surgical mask.
According to their findings, which were published in the journal Thorax, the single-layer mask was only somewhat better than going mask-less and surgical mask provided the most protection.
The two-layer mask was substantially better than the single-layer one.
“Based on the visualisations presented, in case of shortages of surgical masks, a cloth face covering with at least two layers is preferable to a single-layer one,” the authors wrote. “Guidelines on homemade cloth masks should stipulate multiple layers (at least 3).” Surgical masks are comprised of three layers.
Previous research looking at mask efficacy suggested that masks made of tightly woven cotton plus two layers of chiffon made from polyester were the most effective as cloth masks go.
Proper fit, of course, also matters. A mask should cover your nose, mouth, and chin and fit snuggly without visible gaps.
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Bahl P, et al. Face Coverings and Mask to Minimise Droplet Dispersion and Aerosolisation: A Video Case Study.Thorax. July 24, 2020. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/thoraxjnl-2020-215748.
Cohut M. What Material is Best for Homemade Masks? Medical News Today. May 2, 2020.
Konda A, et al. Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks. ACS Nano. April 24,2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c03252.
Phend C. Not All Cloth Masks Are Equally Protective. MedPage Today. July 23, 2020.