There is little doubt that COVID-19 will be with us for awhile and wearing masks will continue. The question for many is what type of masks work best. First off, any mask is better than no mask. It is clear now that wearing a mask significantly lowers the risk of transmitting the disease to others and masks prevent contracting the disease. Masks stop virus laden droplets from entering the air especially during coughing and sneezing and prevent the wearer from inhaling them. Perfectly? Well, no, but something is better than nothing. An experiment using high-speed video found that hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometers are generated when saying a simple phrase, but that nearly all these droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth. Another study of people who had influenza or the common cold found that wearing a surgical mask significantly reduced the amount of these respiratory viruses emitted in droplets and aerosols reported in the journal Health Affairs, the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia, found that mask mandates led to a slowdown in daily COVID-19 growth rate, which became more apparent over time. A recent case report is also very telling. Two hair stylists in Missouri had close contact with 140 clients while sick with COVID-19. Everyone wore a mask and none of the clients tested positive. Masks save lives while allowing people to live their lives.
So, cloth mask or 3 ply or surgical or N95? Cloth masks are generally good at stopping and capturing small droplets, but are not great at stopping viruses (super tiny particles) from entering or exiting. 3 ply masks are excellent at preventing viruses and bacteria from entering the mask. The test of particle and bacterial filtration for these surgical face masks is greater than 95 percent. Cloth masks, good ones with a couple of layers of fabric, typically block around 80 percent. Cloth masks also are not tested under FDA standards - you don’t know what you get. A N95 make (KN95 mask) that is fitted is the gold standard for protection, but these masks (respirators) are largely reserved for the healthcare setting. These masks are designed to block more than 95 percent of virus sized particles. They are also designed to fit more snuggly on the face. It is possible for the general public to buy these masks, but they are often in short supply and cost significantly more.
The bottom-line? Wear a mask. Find one that fits you well and allows you to breathe. The more protection it affords you the better.
About the author
Dr Tipton is an occupational and preventive medicine expert with board certifications in those fields. He trained at USC and UCLA.