Along with other protective measures, such as social or physical distancing and proper hand hygiene, face masks may be an easy, inexpensive, and potentially effective way to stay safe and flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), now encourage all people to wear masksTrusted Source or face coverings when out in public.
So, which type of face mask works best for avoiding transmission of the new coronavirus when you’re out in public? Continue reading to learn more about the different types of masks and which one you should wear.
Why do face masks matter with this coronavirus?
With the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, the largest amount of viral shedding, or transmission, happens early in the course of the disease. Therefore, people may be contagious before they even start to show symptoms.
Moreover, scientific models suggest that up to 80 percent of transmission stems from asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Emerging research suggests that widespread mask use may help limit the transmission of the virus by people who don’t realize that they may have it.
It’s also possible that you could acquire SARS-CoV-2 if you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching a surface or object that has the virus on it. However, this is not thought to be the main way that the virus spreads
What types of face masks work best?
Fit- and seal-tested respirators are made of tangled fibers that are highly effective at filtering pathogens in the air. These respirators must meet the rigorous filtration standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The diameter of the coronavirus is estimated to be 125 nanometers (nm). Keeping this in mind, it’s helpful to know that:
Certified N95 respirators can filter 95 percent of particles that are 100 to 300 nm in size.
N99 respirators have the ability to filter 99 percent of these particles.
N100 respirators can filter 99.7 percent of these particles.
Some of these respirators have valves that allow exhaled air to get out, making it easier for the user to breathe. However, the downside of this is that other people are susceptible to the particles and pathogens that are exhaled through these valves.
Frontline healthcare and other workers who need to use these masks as part of their job are tested at least once a year to verify proper respirator size and fit. This also includes checking for air leakage using specific test particles. These routine tests help ensure that harmful particles and pathogens can’t leak through.
There are various types of surgical masks. Typically, these disposable, single-use masks are cut into a rectangle shape with pleats that expand to cover your nose, mouth, and jawline. They are composed of breathable synthetic fabric.
Unlike respirators, surgical face masks don’t have to meet NIOSH filtration standards. They aren’t required to form an airtight seal against the area of your face that they cover.
How well surgical masks filter pathogens varies widely, with reports ranging from 10 to 90 percent.
Despite differences in fit and filtration capacity, a randomized trial found that surgical face masks and N95 respirators reduced participant risk of various respiratory illnesses in similar ways.
Adherence — or proper and consistent use — played a more pivotal role than the type of medical-grade mask or respirator worn by study participants. Other studies have since supported these findings.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) cloth masks are less effective at protecting the wearer because most have gaps near the nose, cheeks, and jaw where tiny droplets can be inhaled. Also, the fabric is often porous and can’t keep out tiny droplets.
Although cloth masks tend to be less effective than their medical-grade counterparts, experimental results suggest they are far better than no mask at all when worn and constructed properly.