Why some masks and materials are better than others
There's no denying COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down. And new rules and social norms have only added to the confusion caused by the pandemic. Since it was discovered that COVID-19 is transmitted through droplets and small airborne particles, face masks have become a part of our everyday lives. Whether we're running out to the grocery store or meeting up with a friend for socially-distanced coffee, face masks are a critical part of keeping society safe as we navigate our way through this pandemic.
Face masks now come in a wide array of colors, designs, and fabrics so you can have some personal style while staying safe. But not all masks are created equal. There's actually a big difference in how well certain materials can protect you. And since masks prevent you from getting others sick and others from getting you sick, we want all the protection we can get! We break down which face masks are best and which you should probably skip.
Why N95s are the Gold Standard
N95 respirator masks are usually considered to be the "gold standard" for face masks. In pre-covid times, you'd usually use an N95 mask if you were doing a heavy-duty DIY project or in the middle of a big wildfire. If fitted correctly, N95 masks have the ability to reduce droplet transmission to below 0.1% (2). That's why, at the beginning of the pandemic, they were almost exclusively being used by medical workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 and hospitals were asking for donations for these specific types of masks. There is one caveat though- N95 masks with a front valve only protect the person wearing it. The valve allows particles to escape from the mask, which could lead to others becoming infected (2). If your N95 does have a front valve, you could wear another mask over it to limit exhaled air. But if you have a choice- always buy a N95 mask without a valve!
Best Face Mask Options
There are plenty of mask options beyond N95 masks that will do a superb job at protecting you and others from COVID-19 infection. Researchers have been hard at work trying to determine the most effective masks on the market. Many agree that N95 masks are the best at filtering out particles, while well-fitted surgical masks, masks made from a hybrid of fabrics, and cotton masks all effectively reduce droplet transmission (3-7).
Surgical masks are traditionally used in hospitals to act as a barrier against fluid and offer protection to workers, but they're now a go-to option for people looking for a disposable mask to protect against COVID-19. The multiple layers of non-woven meltblown fabric make these masks really effective at filtering. They're a good face mask option because they're relatively easy to find now and can be pretty inexpensive!
Cotton is an excellent material for a face mask because it's widely available, natural, and breathable. Plus, it's machine washable! But it's important to look for a high thread count cotton mask rather than a low one. Cotton with "higher threads per inch" and "tight weaves" had better filtration effects than loosely woven fabric (4).
A hybrid of fabrics like cotton and silk, cotton and chiffon, cotton and flannel are also great options for a mask. The mix of fabrics helps create an electrostatic effect that improves filtration (4,6). Silk is "particularly effective at excluding particles in the nanoscale regime (<∼100 nm), while filtration effects for cotton/chiffon and cotton/flannel "was >80% (for particles <300 nm) and >90% (for particles >300 nm)" (4).
Whether you're clicking "buy it now" or getting crafty with a DIY project, surgical masks, cotton, or a hybrid fabric all offer solid protection against COVID-19. You can also get creative with different colors and patterns to show off your unique sense of style. But make sure to buy one that's comfortable! What's the point of buying that sequin-y, glitter-y, leopard print mask if it'll just stay in your dresser drawer?!
Better than No Mask, but Not the Best
While wearing a face mask is always better than going without one, some masks are better than others. Makeshift masks often provide very little protection when compared to proper masks. Gaiters and bandanas had "substantial amounts" of droplet particles detected outside of the mask (3), and researchers looking at common household items you could use as a mask found that a scarf wrapped around the face did the worst at preventing infection (5). It's also crucial to make sure your mask fits your face properly. Even if it's made from one of our recommended materials, an ill-fitted mask can result in "over a 60% decrease in the filtration efficiency" (4).
Any mask is better than no mask, regardless of the material it's made out of. Masks are a crucial part of keeping everyone safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. N95s, surgical masks, and masks made from cotton or a hybrid fabric are all great choices, but it's important to experiment with different mask styles and materials to find the one that works best for you. If your mask is comfortable, you'll probably wear it more!