Not All Masks Are Equal

Wearing a mask has become a part of our daily lives and probably will be for the foreseeable future. They are a way to help contain the spread of contagions and as a way of showing support for our healthcare professionals. Before you slip on your next facial covering on the way out the door, some significant differences between each type should be understood.

The simplest way to break this down is to categorize masks and understand what each can and can’t do for you. As a general consensus, there are three major categories of masks for those concerned about airborne infections:

  • Lightweight or homemade facemasks (made from cotton or other similar materials)
  • Surgical masks
  • N95 respirator mask

Lightweight Masks

Most of us understand the concept behind lightweight masks or face covers: they can be as simple as a bandana tied around the face or as sophisticated as several layers of coarse material sewn together in a professional and styled fashion. Since there are varying types of materials used and differing amounts of layers employed, no clear statistics are available for how much protection is truly provided by this style. Studies do show that this mitigation factor helps prevent illnesses from being transmitted, when compared to having no protection at all.

There are some other things to consider when using a lightweight or homemade facial covering: no matter how well they’ve been sewn and fitted to your face, there are gaps that prevent a complete seal on your face. These masks are more about preventing your exhalations from exposing others. They are helpful with big droplets that come from someone sneezing or coughing but can’t protect you from the small particulates in the air.

Cloth masks do help people avoid touching their face and inadvertently transferring germs, but far too many people wear and touch them improperly. Specifically, people will only cover their mouth and not their nose, or adjust them by grabbing the material and consequently spreading contaminates from their hands onto their face. Additionally, too many individuals repeatedly wear the same mask without cleaning or disinfecting the material regularly. Depending on your usage and exposure, lightweight masks can only be used for several hours before cleaning is required.

Surgical Masks

The next step up in protection from the fabric mask style would be what many healthcare experts and providers utilize, typically known as surgical masks. These are more significant than the paper or commercial masks but still don’t get a snug fit over the nose and the ties or strings don’t allow for a secure, tight knot to be made in the back. Industry or industrial surgical masks are more specifically what we are referring to here. They will have a metal nose piece that can be pinched to fit the wearer’s nose and face more precisely as well as have a much tauter fit on the face. Surgical masks are harder to find and purchase at this time, especially with the greater need for them reverting back to the healthcare community.

Overall, testing shows that these types of masks can protect as much as three times more than a homemade or lightweight mask, but only when changed often, worn properly and not adjusted or altered by the user once fitted. There are two typical industrial surgical masks easily recognized by just about everybody: one is a blue mask with white ties or elastic and the previously mentioned metal nose piece embedded or glued to the top of the mask. Or a white, domed and pressure sealed mask that is worn especially when working with fluids, in close proximity to others, or in other volatile situations. Specifically with the white, round mask getting the best protection is only possible with a clean-shaven face. A good seal cannot happen with facial hair, it would create an outside air leakage.

N95 Masks

The final category of masks is commonly known as an N95 mask or respirator. In the past these were regularly used by people working in dusty or moldy conditions, and in industries like construction, mining, and painting. However, many healthcare workers are turning to this type of protections due to the severity of symptoms and the number of COVID cases that they are treating. 

N95 respirators are aptly named because they filter out 95% (or more) of the smallest particle in the air, roughly down to 0.3 microns in size. To give some scope to this size, the human hair is usually about 0.75 microns. 

A note of caution with the N95 masks: the mask must create a tight seal around the mouth and nose and does not completely eliminate the possibility of getting sick or infected and shouldn’t be shared between individuals. This is a tool to help prevent the spread of illness and the inhalation of harmful particles but is only effective when used properly.

N95 masks are the tool of choice specific to healthcare professionals and conscientious people dealing with COVID-19. They offer a greater level of defense and guard against you being contracting and transmitting the virus. There are some caveats here, too: 

  • Do you have enough disposable or reusable N95 masks?
  • How often do you dispose of the non-reusable masks?
  • How often do you need to replace the filters on the reusable masks?
  • How often should I disinfect my reusable mask?
  • How tight should the mask feel on my face?
  • What if I do have facial hair? 

Truly, there are hundreds of questions that are being asked right now when it comes to facial coverings and the coronavirus. Unfortunately, not all the answers are readily available and some of the information is contradictory. The best advice we could give you is to do your own homework, sometimes with personal experiments recommended, too. 

“Should I wear a mask in public?”

The CDC has recommended some sort of covering should be worn while out in public, especially where contact with other people will happen, such as in stores. But it is not necessary to wear a mask at all times, and in fact it is recommended when you aren’t in close proximity to people that you remove and discard disposable masks for safety purposes. Mask wearing should only be done when you aren’t able to maintain social distancing rules.

“I can’t breathe very well with the mask on!”

All masks are going to restrict the flow of air as a means of filtering and cleaning out the particulates, so they don’t enter your system. If breathing becomes difficult or causes distress you will need to assess a couple of different issues. If the movement of air in and out is overly difficult, is the mask or filter clogged and needs to be replaced? If breathing is difficult due to a feeling of anxiety or other triggers, is there a different type of mask that would be better for you?

“Who am I protecting when I wear a mask?”

The simplest answer is ‘everyone’. The mask isn’t so much to protect you but is more a layer of protection for everyone else. When we speak, cough and sneeze, particles exit our bodies and enter the air. Even if you don’t believe you are sick, you can still be a carrier or asymptomatic and be spreading the virus to others. By wearing a mask, you are keeping the spread of your own germs to a minimum.

“Does microwaving my mask kill the germs?”

The best answer is ‘no’. Some of the reusable masks contain metal parts, which are not suitable for a microwave. Other parts and materials will melt or rapidly degrade in a microwave. Plus, there are no studies that show microwaving nonfood items actually kill germs, so stick to washing items that can be in a washer and wiping down your other nonporous masks.

“Should my child be wearing a mask?”

It is not recommended that children under the age of 2 years old wear a mask. As it currently stands, it would be better to not bring children out with you, whenever possible, and to wash your hands and discard your mask when you get home. This is especially important for children with compromised immune systems. It is also critical to understand that many masks, particularly the N95 masks, are not sized for young children and will not properly cover their nose and mouth. There is a suffocation risk associated with young children wearing masks.

There may be no single solution that is perfect for every member of your household, so be sure you take everyone’s needs, concerns and conditions in mind as you are researching, shopping and sewing your way through this unprecedented time. Also, keep in mind these tips to properly utilize any mask you decide to use:

  1. Always clean your hands before putting on, and removing, a mask
  2. Check for any tears or holes in reusable masks
  3. Make sure to securely fit the mask over both nose and mouth with your chin also covered
  4. Adjust straps, ties or elastic for a dependable fit
  5. Avoid touching the mask until you are removing it
  6. Properly dispose of or place reusable mask where others won’t come in contact with it
  7. If contact is made with a contaminated mask, quickly wash your hands

We are hoping, not just during this challenging time, but also going forward, to provide you with a greater understanding of what options are available for you and your family. As you’ve no doubt heard – We’ll get through this together!