Wearing masks has become our new normal, and we can appreciate the level of creativity that comes with the new masks in the market. Arguably, not all masks available are effective.
Face masks can be broadly classified as: disposable/single-use masks and reusable masks. Disposable masks are mainly used in medical facilities, while reusable masks are made using fabric and can be washed after every use.
Medical face masks are reserved for the front line and health care workers. Reusable masks are just as effective when worn the correct way.
In general, there are single-use face masks, surgical masks, and respirators. Face mask specifications are different, depending on the country or region.
Single-use masks have one thin layer only and are most effective in filtering larger particles such as dust. Surgical masks have better standards in that they are able to filter viruses and small particles (0.1 micron).
Respirators are able to capture 90% or more of virus-sized particles. They have different ratings based on the exact proportion each certification requires. Examples include; N95, KN95, FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3.
For masks with exhalation valves, it should be noted that the vent allows unfiltered air out and, therefore, should not be worn if the person has symptoms of COVID-19 or has been tested and confirmed.
In some cases, however, using medical face masks should be prioritized;
- In a community prone to COVID-19 outbreaks, vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and people with underlying conditions are encouraged to use medical face masks.
- At home, if a family member has symptoms of COVID-19 or has been confirmed to have COVID-19, they should be advised to use medical masks.
Here are a few examples of disposable masks
Surgical face masks.
These are flat, loose-fitting paper-thin masks, normally white and light blue in color. They are normally fluid-resistant and are designed to cover the nose and mouth and filter up to 60% of small particles, thus preventing fine droplets and sprays or large-particle droplets.
Designs may vary, but these masks are typically rectangular in shape, with some pleats. There is a metal strip at the top of the mask to form fit your nose and elastic bands that loop behind your ear or tied behind the head.
They are not designed for multi-use and should be disposed of after one use.
The N95 face respirators are most effective for protection against the Coronavirus as well as other respiratory diseases. They are tight-fitting and designed to filter up to 95% of airborne particles, including bacteria and viruses.
The mask is normally circular or oval in shape with elastic bands to keep it in place. Some have an exhalation valve to ease breathing and prevent a buildup of heat and humidity.
For the mask to work, a proper seal has to be formed, which can be a challenge for children and people who have facial hair. Due to a shortage of supply, N95 masks are reserved for healthcare personnel and first responders. There are also N99 respirators filtering 99% of the particles and N100, which offer 99.97% filtration.
Other types are the R95 (95% filtration and partially resistant to oil), P95, P99, and P100 (strongly oil resistant).
Reusable Face Masks
Cloth or fabric face mask
This refers to standard face masks made locally, recommended for use in public places, such as local stores or gas stations.
A good reusable mask should be able to cover your nose, mouth, and chin with at least two layers of fabric. The degree of effectiveness of a homemade face mask depends on how it’s made.
Single-layer masks offer limited protection because they can only filter out about 1% of airborne particles. Double layered masks are able to filter out about 35% of the particles.
Wearing more than one mask or double masking may be more detrimental than useful.
There is a very simple reason for this, multiple layers make you hot and uncomfortable, causing difficulty in breathing. One or both masks will keep moving around, forcing you to keep touching your face when adjusting.
When making a face mask at home, use thick and densely woven cotton fabrics or sheets like quilting cotton. Cotton fabrics have been proven to limit the distance covered by droplets or sprays from about 8 Ft (244 cm) to 0.2 Ft (6.4 cm).
Some cloth masks have a polypropylene filter on the inside. This fabric is able to hold an electrostatic charge, which aids in trapping small particles. When making a mask at home, you can use facial tissue as a filter. Fold the tissue in two and insert it in the filter pocket, ensuring you change it on a daily basis.
How To Check the Quality of the Mask
A simple, effective test you can do at home only requires a candle. Hold the mask up to light and check to see if you are able to see the light and whether you can blow the candle through the mask.
The appropriate fabric weave should be tight, and hence if you are able to see the light or blow the candle, the mask will not be useful.
What To Consider When Buying a Mask
An ideal mask should have two layers of fabric. The mask should have a strip above the nose for those wearing glasses to ensure its form fits your face without fogging your glasses.
Other qualities to look for are;
- It should be comfortable when worn in the right way. If frequently pulled down to facilitate breathing or talking, it undermines the effectiveness of the mask despite the quality.
- The mask should be fitting and conforms to your face without leaving gaps. Ideally, the air you breathe should pass through the mask, not around it.
- It should have more than a single layer, and the fabric used is tightly woven to ensure filtration.
- The fabric used should not be itchy or uncomfortable to prevent the urge to keep touching or adjusting it.
How To Properly Wear a Face Mask
- Sanitize or wash your hands using soap and running water before and after touching the mask
- Ensure that the mask fits well and fully covers your nose, mouth, and chin. Anytime you adjust the mask, wash your hands before and after
- Ensure you are able to breathe and talk comfortably through the mask
- Remember to wash reusable masks after every use. If the mask you have on is disposable, discard it well after use.
Care After Wearing the Mask
- Don’t touch the mask while putting it on, especially your child’s mask.
- When putting on and taking off your mask, ensure that you touch only the bands or ties
- Don’t wear the mask under your chin with your nose and mouth exposed.
- Don’t share your mask with family members or friends.
How To Properly Take Off a Face Mask
- Wash your hands using soap and running water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Avoid touching your face or the front of the mask.
- Carefully remove the mask by holding it by the straps. For masks with more than one pair of straps, loosen the bottom ones first, going up.
- Remove and discard filter if your mask has one.
- Fold the mask and put it directly into the laundry or into a washable bag.
- Wash or clean your hands again.
How To Clean Your Face Mask
- For cloth masks and masks made of fabric like cotton, wash them with hot water, same as normal laundry, then tumble dry them in the dryer on a high setting.
- Non-scented detergent is best if you are sensitive to perfume.
- When hand washing your mask, hot soapy water is best. Ensure you scrub the mask for not less than 20 seconds and dry on high heat in the dryer, or simply hang in the sun to dry.
- Disposable or surgical masks should be disposed of after use or if damaged.
- The clean masks should be stored in a clean place when not in use.