This article is also available in print: Quaker Campus, Volume 19 – Issue 5, dated Oct. 28, 2021, on the Whittier College campus.
It has been over a year and a half since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and, as we are all surely aware, a lot has changed in that time. We live in a world of hand sanitizer and social distancing; many people have lost loved ones, and many more people have experienced extreme fatigue over the changes that have been necessary to keeping COVID-19’s infection rate lower than it otherwise could be. It has been hard on all of us, frankly, and while cases are on somewhat of a downward trend and as vaccination numbers continue to rise, the pandemic isn’t anywhere close to ending, which has not been helped by the large portion of the U.S. population that refuses to get vaccinated and protests the idea of wearing a mask. This is obviously a problem for many reasons, the politicalization of the pandemic being a major one, but needless to say, we are going to have to continue dealing with these changes for a while. As such, it is important for us to understand the ins-and-outs of the tools we have to combat the virus, and right now, outside of vaccines (which are majorly important — get vaccinated!), the best weapon that we have is probably the face mask.
An ideal face mask will block both the large droplets that are released from coughing or sneezing as well as smaller particles that are released when a person talks or exhales. It is important that there be no gap between a face mask and a person’s skin, as gaps allow droplets and particles to leak out and infect other people. More than one layer of cloth, plastic, etc. is good for a face mask and increases the protection it offers both to the wearer and others, three in particular has been suggested as an ideal amount if possible. While face masks do offer some protection from the wearer inhaling infectious particles, it is also worth noting that face masks are ideally suited for preventing the wearer from spreading the virus.
Now, I think it is important to understand the pros and cons of the various different types of face masks that are currently available to wear and purchase. Some are indeed safer than others, some are better for the environment too, and understanding how to utilize each type may be important for certain individuals with certain health conditions, or those that may be concerned with protecting themselves from the virus as much as possible. We will start by discussing bandanas and scarves: do not wear them. They are poor alternatives to other face masks; a Journal of Hospital Infection study found that a scarf reduced a person’s risk of infecting another person by 44 percent after sharing a room with a person for 30 seconds, and by 24 percent after 20 minutes. We will get to discussing how that compares to other masks in a moment, but suffice it to say, those numbers are pretty low. Researchers at Duke University found that bandanas also did a poor job of preventing the spread of droplets and particles, and as such should not be relied upon either.
Fabric masks, however, are much better at protecting the wearer and other people. By fabric masks, we are referring to any mask made from a fabric material such as silk or cotton. The first thing to note is that the tightness of the weave of the mask is very important for filtering out small and large particles, according to Supratik Guha, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago who spoke to NPR on the subject. A tighter weave means less space for particles to move through, which is exactly what you want and the primary reason that you’re wearing a mask in the first place. Similarly, a 100 percent cotton mask is probably the best material if you want to wear a fabric mask. According to Christopher Zangmeister, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and technology (who also spoke to NPR), cotton tends to have three dimensional structures that help it block incoming and outgoing particles. Synthetic fibers (such as polyester, nylon, etc.), on the other hand, are more uniform and flat, which makes them worse at filtering these particles. As we mentioned before, multiple layers is a good thing, and the aforementioned three dimensional structures are likely even better when backed up by extra layers.
An added benefit of fabric masks is their ability to add a filter. According to May Chu, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health (another NPR-er), a plastic material called polypropylene is great for mask filters. In addition to it naturally being effective at filtering out particles, it also holds a static charge, which can make liquid particles in the air cling to the mask and thus not get inhaled. It also holds its charge in humidity, which is not universal for all possible filter materials. Though polypropylene does lose its charge upon being washed, rubbing it with a plastic glove for about 20 seconds can recharge it. According to a study co-authored by Chu, a two-layer tight-weave cotton mask can filter out about 35 percent of inhaled small particles. Adding a filter made of two layers of charged polypropylene, however, could add another 35 percent to that number, greatly enhancing the protection it offers the wearer as well as the people around the wearer. If you cannot get your hands on a polypropylene filter or two, then two sheets of tissue paper also works, though they do not hold the added benefit of having a static charge. One more important thing to note about fabric masks (though this applies to all masks that use these), is that while exhalation vents may make your mask more comfortable, they also inherently release air that is unfiltered, which means that they do not protect other people if you are infected, which is the primary reason that we should be wearing masks in the first place.
N95 masks, meanwhile, are extremely effective at protecting both the wearer and the people around them. When worn correctly, they block at least 95 percent of airborne particles, which is among the best filtration rates of any mask you can possibly get. That being said, they’re currently in short supply, and should be reserved for health care workers and first responders. If you do decide to get one because you believe it is necessary for your particular situation, look out for counterfeit masks. Here is how to spot a fake from the real thing.
The cousin of the N95 mask is the KN95 masks, which are regulated by the Chinese Government and should, in theory, also filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. That ‘in theory’ was intentionally irresolute, as research has shown that the actual effectiveness of these masks can vary wildly. In addition, they also have a counterfeit problem; an easy way to know if you’re buying a fake KN95 is if the mask says ‘NIOSH Approved’ anywhere on the mask or its packaging. ‘NIOSH’ stands for ‘National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health,’ which, while a legitimate organization, is also an American organization that would not comment on another country’s standards. So, while these masks may seem like an attractive option, know that your mileage may vary as to how effective they will actually be, and there is a chance that any you buy will be fake anyway.
Surgical masks are definitely the most accessible mask option, as they have been a mainstay of hospitals and doctor’s offices for decades, but their effectiveness also varies wildly from mask to mask and from manufacturer to manufacturer. One study showed that, when tested, one mask blocked around 30 percent of incoming small particles, while others blocked up to about 80 percent. The unpredictability of surgical masks makes them difficult to recommend, however they are notably good at protecting others from getting infected by the wearer, and surgical masks made using polypropylene are also effective for the reasons we discussed earlier.
This would not be a complete guide to wearing face masks if it did not discuss every aspect of wearing them, so, while we may be finished with our review of how effective each type of mask is, there is one more element of wearing them that must be discussed: a study performed by Chinese scientists showed that a wide range of masks, from fabric to surgical, dramatically increases a person’s daily intake of microplastics and microfibres. Though the long-term effects of this have not been excessively studied, a study in the ‘90s found microplastic build up in the lungs of patients who died of lung cancer. Plastics degrade slowly, and thus tend to stay in the lungs for a long period of time when inhaled. Some studies have shown that the immune system will attack inhaled plastics, which can cause prolonged inflammation that, in some cases, can lead to cancer. Though face masks were shown in the Chinese study to filter out microplastics in the air, all of the tested masks (save for N95’s) produced more microplastic fibers than they filtered. This worsened depending on the method used to clean the mask. The worst structural damage that led to more microplastics being inhaled was done by using alcohol; the least damaging was using ultraviolet light. Soap and water caused some damage, but not much, and is likely the best common solution for cleaning masks.
So, fabric masks seem to be the way to go if you want to maximize the amount of protection that you give to yourself and others, though the multiple layers and extra effort that you will go through to achieve that protection are worth noting. It is probably best to save N95 masks for health care workers, and KN95s are too unpredictable to be recommended, as are surgical masks. Bandanas and scarves should be worn as an absolute last result, and it is vital that we consider the long-term ramifications of wearing masks, even if they are absolutely necessary for helping to curb the spread of COVID-19. That is important to remember: though wearing masks of all kinds have their benefits and detriments, and even though there are potential downsides to wearing masks in general, it is still important that we continue to wear them, because the positives far outweigh the potential long-term health problems. Masks save lives, so if you remember nothing else from this guide, remember this: be responsible, mask up, and remember that you are doing this for the people you care about.