COVID-19 has restyled our lives like we never imagined. Perhaps life activities are still ongoing, but we are doing them differently and people are adopting new routines. Working from home, avoiding handshakes, maintaining a safe distance are now the new norms. Avoiding social gatherings, revving up good hygiene and frequent hand washing are now routine chores. Another activity that is new to most is wearing masks or covering of the face. In many places, this is an obligation when outdoors; some also have to follow the indoor mask wearing rule. But the quality and efficacy of masks is important. Let’s do a further comparison of a mask, and see which one is most protective – cloth, surgical or N95.
Why Is Wearing A Face Mask Important During This Pandemic?
COVID-19 is a respiratory infection. The coronavirus attacks the lungs and the disease spreads via respiratory droplets. That is why the first line of defense against the disease remains wearing face masks. Why? Because there is no vaccine available for this infection yet. Also, because masks make an essential tool of source control in the wake of COVID-19, they act as a simple barrier to prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people. This usually happens when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. The use of masks is particularly crucial in settings where social distancing is challenging to maintain, as in public transport, at the workplace, at markets, hospitals, classrooms etc.
There are other essential precautionary measures to remain safe in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While wearing masks may not be the perfect barrier against the coronavirus, we can call it the most important of them all. Here are some reasons why:
- Covering your face can protect you from contracting the disease
- Wearing a face mask can cut back the spread of the coronavirus
- There is a lack of screening resources for the coronavirus. Face masks remain the only safeguard against the asymptomatic carriers of the disease
- Face masks may be the only protection for people working at the frontlines, such as in the case of healthcare workers. These communities are more at risk of exposure to the virus because their workplaces do not allow room for social distancing
Masks may not be a 100% protective tool, but nor are the other safeguard measures. Together however they make an excellent adjunct to each other. Combining all the public health measures at the community level effectively slows the spread of the disease.
Some may see wearing masks as a limitation. However, masks in the wake of COVID-19 can help to liberate you from illness and reduce the fear of contracting the disease.
Is The Quality Of Mask Important To Protect From Coronavirus?
Masks have always been a part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) of healthcare workers. The surgical masks N95 are quite useful as there are studies that prove the consistent support these masks deliver in high-risk areas. Another study shows the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of respiratory diseases.
In the wake of COVID-19, we see a surge in demand for masks. The reasons for this increased demand are self-explanatory. As estimated by the business consulting firm Grand View Research, global sales of face masks are about $166 billion in 2020 as reported by the UN trade body, UNCTAD. This number increased from $800 million in 2019 – a huge leap!
Despite the increased production, there are shortages of PPE. Wearing high-quality regulated masks is impractical for the entire population. First, because they are not available. Second, because they are expensive. For this reason, we now see a trend of the use of face covers on the rise.
What Makes A Mask Effective?
Effectiveness does not mean trapping the virus in a cloth mesh. The aim of wearing a mask is to reduce the respiratory droplet spread, to a distance far away from your body. A typical cloth mask has weaves with gaps between 1-0.1 millimeters. That is about 1000 times larger than the size of coronavirus. Still, some claim wearing a cloth mask is as effective when its use is paired up with other safeguards. So which mask is most effective then? Let’s look closely at a comparison of masks available.
A Comparison Of Masks
There are studies conducted to identify the effectiveness of different types of masks. For the public, the most critical aspect of a mask is the comfort level of wearing it. Health experts recommend wearing a mask that is comfortable so that it can be worn with consistency.
Your mask should cover your face starting from the bridge of your nose to under your chin. It should be loose enough not to irritate you. But it should be secure enough to stay in place. It should allow room for talking so that you are not compelled to remove it at any time. Apart from comfort and suggestions from health experts, what other aspects make a mask more effective? Let us have a look at the cloth, surgical and N95 masks for a comparison.
Are Cloth Masks Effective?
Cloth masks can be made at home. Usually, soft cotton or linen material is the best for making a cloth mask. The ideal cloth for a homemade mask should have a high thread count. It should be thick and tightly weaved. The cloth mask should have at least two layers so that it is most effective at filtering droplets. The cloth should be of breathable material. Since the cloth masks can be washed, make sure the material does not shrink. Holding the mask to bright light would indicate how effective it is at filtering function. The more it blocks light, the better is its filtering capability.
Whatever the cloth mask you use, it should be washable material. A cloth mask is excellent in trapping droplets released when the wearer talks, coughs, or sneezes. The good thing about cloth masks is that you can wash and reuse them. It depends on how frequently you use a cloth mask. Coronavirus can survive on surfaces. That is why health experts recommend washing your cloth masks after each use or every second day. This feature makes cloth masks an economical bargain. However, no cloth mask is comparable to the effectiveness of the N95 mask.
Are Surgical Masks Effective?
The surgical masks come in a blue-colored loose-fitted design. They are usually disposable and water-resistant. Also called a medical mask, a surgical mask protects the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with pathogenic droplets and splashes. A surgical mask filters large particles in the air. Surgical masks may protect the wearer from the respiratory droplets from others. It also reduces the risk of exposure to others from protection of the mask wearer’s saliva and respiratory secretions.
Are N95 Masks Effective?
These disposable masks are also called respirators. By design, they have the efficiency to screen off 95% of tiny particles making them able to filter both large and small particles in the air. This is a better option for protection when it comes to the coronavirus. Some N95 masks have in-built valves that make it easier for the wearer to breathe. However, unfiltered air is released through this mask, so they may not be good enough to wear in public places. Health experts suggest using N95 masks that pass the standards set by the U.S. government. Such a mask should filter at least 95% of particles that are 0.3% microns in size. They should also cover your nose and mouth, forming a tight seal.
Unfortunately, the N95 masks are not washable. Washing reduces their filtering ability and cuts back on the effectiveness of coronavirus protection. So if you feel your N95 mask is soiled or is not forming a tight seal or you are finding it difficult to breathe through, dispose of it.
Good Characteristics To Look For In Masks
Whatever mask you choose, it should have at least two layers of fabric. It should be wide enough to cover your nose and mouth without any break. The mask should also be equipped with ear loops or ties in case you need to adjust them. For people who wear glasses, masks with a bendable border at the top are recommended. These masks can be fitted on the bridge of the nose. It not only makes wearing them easy but also prevents the glasses from fogging up and blurring your vision.
What Kind Of Masks Do Health Authorities Recommend?
The N95 mask or respirators are regulated by authorities as such as:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The N95 masks are labeled as part of personal protective equipment by these authorities. That means healthcare workers and medical first responders should only use these respirator masks. CDC does not recommend these masks to be used by the public on accounts that:
- N95 are critical PPE which should be reserved for the healthcare force
- N95 masks are only useful for the wearer, they do not cater to protect others from the respiratory droplets of the wearer, and they do not serve to cut back the spread of disease
Health experts do not recommend wearing N95 masks that come with a valve. The one-valve closes when you breathe in and opens upon exhalation. It allows the nasal droplets and unfiltered air to escape, which does not protect others around you. CDC recommends the use of cloth masks for the general public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks for:
- the general public
- people diagnosed with COVID-19
- people who might think they have COVID-19 or are asymptomatic
- people working in high-risk settings as healthcare workers or caregivers of COVID-19 patients
Is Wearing A Mask Mandatory?
The answer is yes. If you are outdoors, wearing a mask is an obligation. You owe it to yourself and to the people you love and the community as well.
Coronavirus is a droplet infection. A healthy person can catch the virus by inhaling the respiratory droplets released by an infected person. While the social distancing protocol helps you keep a safe distance and avoid coming in contact with larger particles, it does not protect you from the small aerosol particles released with coughing, sneezing, or even while talking.
These small aerosol particles can travel further away than a six feet distance. Research conducted by MIT shows how far these small particles can reach. Particles from cough can travel sixteen feet while a sneeze can throw the particles to a distance of twenty-six feet. So yes, you have to wear a mask to protect yourself from coronavirus.
Which type of mask should you wear? Given the information above on the comparison of masks, here is a good summary. If you are in a public place, wearing a cloth mask would suffice. If you are visiting a healthcare facility, then wearing a surgical mask would be sufficient. For healthcare workers and caregivers who remain in close contact with patients, an N95 mask is required. Even for the healthcare force who think they might be an asymptomatic carrier, they should go for a surgical mask worn over the N95. This is the only way to ensure source control against the spread of coronavirus infection. If you are not in a position to pick, just reach for the closest mask before you head out, place less emphasis on which mask is effective and more importance on covering yourself completely.
The public needs to know the importance of saving the critical PPE for the frontline medical workers and not insist on buying N95 masks. Because the public may or may not be a carrier of the disease and cloth masks work effectively as source control equipment. They trap the respiratory particles released by the wearer and help avoid contact with particles in their vicinity.
Face masks are essential source control tools that help reduce the spread of coronavirus. However, it is vital to exercise the recommendations outlined by the health authorities. Social distancing, proper hygiene, handwashing, sanitizers, and home quarantine are all part of the anti-COVID-19 drive.
Researchers are learning about coronavirus via real-time observations. Till there is a vaccine, there is no perfect guideline against the coronavirus except for the one given by the CDC or the WHO. So hang in there and stay healthy and follow the rules. That should be enough to keep you safe in the wake of COVID-19.