We’ve heard it many times since the COVID-19 outbreak. “I feel great. I don’t need to wear a face mask.” Lost in the daily updates of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) is that asymptomatic people – people who have COVID but don’t show signs of it – can pass it on and infect other people.
In fact, 80% of COVID infections are mild or asymptomatic while 15% are severe and 5% are critical.
The main reason to wear a face mask, ironically, is not to necessarily protect you but to protect others. (Face masks can protect the wearer but in varying degrees.) Face masks cannot offer you complete, 100% protection from COVID-19 infection because none can prevent small particles from entering from unsealed sides. However, when combined with proper social distancing (6 feet, at least) and handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds, infection risk can be significantly reduced.
Face Mask Features that Best Prevent COVID-19 Infection
When choosing a face mask, first consider these features:
100% Cotton Fabric Face Masks with Multiple Layers
Make sure the weave is tight. The individual fibers should not be apparent when you hold the face mask to light. Find a 100% cotton, tight-weave face mask. Cotton fibers are more 3-dimensional than synthetic fibers and will catch more incoming small particles.
Quick tip: if you can’t find a cotton mask, wear a polyester one. It’s just important to wear a mask.
Face masks with multiple layers are more effective at blocking small particles. Consider at least a two-layered, cotton mask with a filter insert. The filter to use should be made of polypropylene, brand name Oly-fun or spunbond, because of its filtration benefits and its electrostatic properties. The cling effect will kick in and trap incoming as well as outgoing large/small droplet particles. Washing the filter will cause it to lose it electrostatic charge. All you have to do to recharge it is to iron it or rub it together with pliable plastic for 20 seconds, i.e., plastic glove.
Quick tip: don’t have a polypropylene filter? Substitute a couple of folded facial tissues. You get added layers but will have to do without the electrostatic charge.
Make sure the face mask cups tightly to your face. You’ll be fine with a pleated or folded face mask because they expand when you breath allowing air through the fabric instead of through the sides.
Quick tip: For a tighter seal, cut, pull, and wrap a stretch of pantyhose on top of the face mask. Not exactly a fashion statement but it works!
N95 Respirators Block 95% of Small Droplet Particles
The “95” in N95 means that these face masks block at least 95% of small droplet particles. In addition, N95 masks are made of multiple layers of electrostatically-charged polypropylene, create a seal around the nose and mouth, and therefore, protect the wearer and others close to the wearer.
Quick tip: N95 masks are typically reserved for front line workers so beware of fakes.
KN95 Respirators Also Block 95% of Small Droplet Particles but Performance is Suspect
While KN95 face masks, like N95 masks, block at least 95% of small droplet particles, testing has proven that they are unreliable. Some do as they state; others do not.
Quick tip: do not buy a KN95 face mask if it’s NIOSH approved. According to NPR, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health do not approve masks produced according to other country’s standards.
We’ve all seen surgical face masks. They’re the ones you always used to see doctors wearing: light blue, straps around the ears, loose fit. In our article titled Are Bandana Masks Effective in Preventing the Spread of COVID?, we refer to these masks as cotton quilted fabric where a cough test spread droplet particles almost 3 inches through the wearer’s mask. Surgical face masks protect people around the wearer from large emitted droplets but not small particles. They also do not protect wearer as much as a N95 mask does.
Quick tip: Most surgical masks sold in the US have not been FDA approved.