A Guide to Face Masks: Types, Materials and Best Practices

  • Apr 8, 2020

 

A Guide to Face Masks:
Types, Materials and Best Practices

N95 masks and KN95 masks provide the best protection

You’ve probably seen the phrase “universal masking” online or in the news by now. Government officials and health experts have been discussing the idea of wearing a protective mask out in public, regardless of whether you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or not, in an effort to curb the spread.

There’s so much information right now, and not all masks are created equally. It’s perfectly natural to feel a bit overwhelmed by all of the information, or feel unsure about which mask types or fabrics work best (or at all) for certain applications, but this is critical knowledge.

The consensus among medical experts is that some sort of mask is at least better than nothing. The CDC has found evidence that people infected with the coronavirus, but are asymptomatic, are still capable of transmitting the virus, making masks a vital precaution for everyone.



Let’s look at 3 basic categories—surgical masks, N95 masks, and fabric masks. Surgical masks, the looser-fitting fabric type that you’ve likely seen people wearing at the grocery store, are fluid resistant and protect people from “large droplets, splashes or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids.” They also keep the wearer from spreading their own respiratory emissions. For COVID-19, which experts say is most easily spread by large droplets spread from a carrier from within about a 6-foot distance, this is a solid protector for lifestyle use. It does, however, allow for leakage around he edges of the masks when the user inhales, because of its looser fitting nature, which makes the N95 respirator more effective for health care professionals or people who come into contact with the sick. The N95 masks also filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles, whereas the surgical mask does not. A surgical mask’s filtration efficiency is roughly 60 to 80 percent.

N95 masks are in high demand and thus in short supply. Fortunately, as of April 3, 2020, the FDA has certified the Chinese-made KN95 mask for use in the US, for both health care and general use. The “95” in the name signifies that it filters out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. APTCO and its partners are now able to provide these to organizations that need them. Contact us for more information.

cloth masks are the secondary line of defense

Fabric masks

With N95 and surgical masks left for medical professionals and the CDC advising widespread mask usage for the general population, a new category has emerged for fabric masks designed for everyday wear. This brings into question the best type of face mask material. The CDC posted a no-sew mask pattern using a bandana and coffee filter, and posted videos on using rubber bands and folded materials commonly found at home. These kinds of masks limit the spread of the wearer's own germs, in the chance they are infected but asymptomatic. But for protecting against incoming germs, material and fit is important.

Homemade masks made of high quality, high thread count cotton have proven to be almost as effective as professionally manufactured surgical masks, with a range of 70 to 79 percent filtration. There’s also a trick to see how effective fabric masks are. “Hold it up to a bright light,” Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health who recently studied homemade masks, told the New York Times. “If light passes really easily through the fibers and you can almost see the fibers, it’s not a good fabric. If it’s a denser weave of thicker material and light doesn’t pass through it as much, that’s the material you want to use.” Again, it’s important to note that the common person going to the pharmacy for the ever-elusive roll of toilet paper or to restock on groceries likely does not need the medical grade protection of an N95 mask if they are not coming into direct contact with someone infected with COVID-19, but precautions are still necessary. The challenge for a lot of people and companies making masks is finding something that has high filtration ability but is still breathable. “You need something that is efficient for removing particles, but you also need to breathe,” Dr. Yang Wang, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology and award-winning aerosol researcher, told the New York Times. In the context of reserving N95 masks for frontline health care professionals, Dr. Wang’s research looked at allergy-reducing HVAC filters, which captured 89 percent of particles with one layer and 94 percent with two layers. Furnace filters captured 75 percent with two layers, and 95 percent with six layers. Cotton—especially tight-weave varieties—has been, for the most part, very effective, which makes it even more heartening to see apparel companies spring into action. Dr. Wang’s study also found that the best homemade mask designs were made with two layers of high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton,” a double-layered mask with batik fabric, and a double-layered mask with an inner flannel layer and outer cotton layer.

Masks made with high quality cotton can protect against a high percentage of contaminants. While some infectious disease experts advise against synthetic or polyester fibers for masks, as studies show the virus survives longer on these fabrics, non-medical masks should be washed after each use anyway, reducing the risk.

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