Wearing a face mask in public is the new norm in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic hits countries worldwide, including our own.
However, using the right type of mask is important to protect yourself and others from potential transmission. Here’s what studies say are the best types of face masks to use.
Types of masks
Researchers at UNSW conducted an experiment to test out which masks worked the best by filming people talking, coughing and sneezing in different scenarios — while not wearing a mask, wearing two different types of cloth masks, or wearing a surgical mask.
The results found that a surgical mask was the most effective at blocking droplets and aerosols from talking, coughing and sneezing.
Surgical masks or medical masks are recommended for public and medical use. These masks are made from a minimum of three layers of synthetic non-woven materials, and configured to have filtration layers sandwiched in the middle. They are available in different thicknesses, have various levels of fluid-resistance and two levels of filtration. What is important is that medical masks reduce the respiratory droplets from the wearer to others and to the environment. They also prevent transmission of the virus from others to the wearer.
Medical and surgical masks are now available widely for purchase online, but be sure to check their specifications before you buy. For example, MedSense medical face masks have been tested and meet ASTM Level 2 Requirements*. Additionally, they also offer Bacterial Filtration (BFE) at ≥ 98% and Particulate Filtration (PFE) at ≥ 98% @ 0.1 micron.
Image source: CNN
For those without access to medical masks, cloth masks are the next best thing.
Cloth face masks work to create a barrier between your face and potential COVID-19 carrying particles. However, the material used to make cloth masks are important. Fabrics made with a tight weave and more than one type of thread, such as cotton-silk, cotton-chiffon, or cotton-flannel, may be good choices because they provide better filtration and are more comfortable to wear. The UNSW researchers also suggest that having more layers in the cloth masks provide better protection. For example, a 12-layered cloth mask is about as protective as a surgical mask, and reduces infection risk by 67%.
Neck fleeces or gaiter masks, typically worn by runners, are the worst types of face covering to wear. Another study by Duke University found that neck fleeces broke down bigger droplets into small particles, allowing them to slip through the material more easily. According to the same study, folded bandanas and knitted masks also did not offer much protection and were as ineffective as not wearing a mask at all.
The Duke University study found that N95 fitted masks and respirators offered the best protection, followed by three-layer surgical masks. However, N95 masks are not recommended for use in the community or outside of healthcare or specific industries as they are specifically designed for healthcare workers who provide care to COVID-19 patients in settings and areas where aerosol generating procedures are undertaken.
Using your face mask correctly
While having the right type of mask is essential, using and wearing it correctly is just as important in reducing transmission rates.
When worn properly, a surgical mask helps to block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain viruses and bacteria, keeping it from reaching the mask wearer's nose and mouth. They also help reduce exposure of the wearer's saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
Additionally, surgical masks are a good reminder to wearers not to touch their mouth or nose, which could otherwise transfer viruses and bacteria after having touched a contaminated surface.
The World Health Organisation offers a useful guide on how to wear a medical mask safely - refer to the infographic below.
Image Source: WHO
As advised by the Australian Government, “wearing a mask can help protect you and those around you if you are in an area with community transmission, and physical distancing is not possible, like on public transport”.
However, it’s important to note that a face mask is not a substitute for physical distancing. Instead, they should be considered a “fourth line of defence” after staying home if unwell and getting tested, maintaining 1.5m social distancing and good hand hygiene.
* ASTM International is a global organization that develops and publishes technical standards for an expansive array of products, materials, systems and services. The ASTM is the standard for medical face masks since 2012.
Image source: News.com.au