Face masks help prevent the spread of diseases, as most of us have heard now due to the current health crisis aka Coronavirus aka COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that everyone wear at least cloth-made face coverings when in public settings, while also observing social distancing measures. Similar measures are being mandated by many cities and states.
Before you buy (or make) a mask, you should first understand that in most cases, face coverings help people who may have the virus (and don’t realize it) from giving it to people around them. This may seem counterintuitive, but that’s because true respirators, the N95 masks and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) you’ve seen medical personal wear, are generally used to protect the wearer, presuming he/she is in an environment that may include infected people. It’s also important to note that no ‘off the shelf’ face mask can guarantee protection from droplet transmission by viruses like COVID, but when we all wear them, they can slow down the spread (i.e., flatten the curve).
Again, no mask will completely protect you from COVID-19. For a quick visual on why, we’ll be taking a bandanna (our first mask review!) as an example:
The biggest reason masks can’t stop COVID-19 is simply due to just how small the particles are. See that little blue dot next to the big blue dot? That little dot represents a 5 micrometer particle, or something that is 4,066% bigger than a coronavirus particle which sits at 0.12 micrometers! What masks do, though, is slow down the spread of particles by inserting barriers. For example, if you were in an elevator with someone, you’d probably prefer them sneezing into their arm versus sneezing into the air. Is either sanitary? No, but you would at least appreciate the arm sneeze.
Types of Face Masks for Adults
Let’s take a look at the most common masks we could find on sources like eBay and Etsy. These online marketplaces are stocked with sellers that have all sorts of face masks for sale, so we purchased different ones to review, knowing that we’d need to wear them around the house, near children, or when doing a run to the store. Please note: the CDC suggests that …”any face covering should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.” Here’s what we learned:
#1 The Bandana
Scarcity: Very common
Cost: $3 or more
Everyone reading this probably has a bandanna tucked away somewhere, which is the beauty of this mask. Another nice thing about wearing a bandana is that it works for different sized faces, including beards, and is washable. The downside of wearing a bandanna is that it’s not always easy to secure around your face, but the upside is that since a bandanna worn this way is folded in half, you can easily insert a paper towel between the folds for an added filtration layer.
#2 The Neck Gaiter
Scarcity: Very common
Cost: $20 or more
Fits: Very comfortable
Similar to a bandanna, a neck gaiter has been used for decades to protect everyone, from fishermen to skiers, from the elements. Is it going to prevent disease? Well, it’s certainly going to cover your face, and it’s pretty comfortable when you do so as there’s nothing to tie (you slip a neck gaiter over your head, like a large sock with the toes cut off). The nice thing about both bandanas and neck gaiters, besides being washable, is that you can also add layers, whether a scarf or perhaps a mask under the cloth, for additional coverings. Again, as the CDC stated: wearing any cloth face covering may help in preventing the spread of the virus.
#3 The Dust Mask
Cost: $0.25 each, sold in packs
These are the most common type of face masks most people are familiar with. Before COVID-19, the typical users of this mask were usually cutting wood or nailing up drywall, as dust masks primarily protect your lungs against your basic irritants that float into the air during construction and cleaning activities. Built from paper-thin material, they’re simply not designed to filter out anything beyond that. They also fit loosely around your face, though they usually have an aluminum piece around the nose for a more custom fit. All that said, dust masks are cheap, disposable, and could be worn in conjunction under a bandanna or neck gaiter, a combination that will give you additional filtration.
#4 The Cloth Mask with Pocket
Scarcity: Fairly common
Cost: $20+ each
Fits: Not bad
These masks are all over marketplaces, like Etsy in particular, because of their DIYness – anyone can take some fabric and customize it into a mask. What can take these masks a step further is the ability to sew a front ‘pocket’ on the inside of the masks, where you can insert additional filters. The mask we purchased came with two individually wrapped, disposable filters. It’s worth noting that the filter inserts add additional filtration, but you won’t find N95 or higher quality inserts for cloth masks. Ours came with a filter that was stamped with n2.5 on it, which we Googled and learned was a weak, carbon-based filter. That said, these masks are convenient, they come in a variety of colors and patterns, and they are pretty plentiful out there to buy.
#5 The Surgical Mask
Scarcity: Fairly common
Cost: $0.30+ each, sold in packs
A surgical mask, despite the name, is a disposable 3 ply face mask that is typically three or more layers. It’s used primarily to prevent liquids and large particle droplets, and it sits loosely on the face. They come in a variety of builds, but generally have the multilayered look. Each layer has a function; top repels away liquids, middle filters some basic pathogens, and the inner absorbs moisture from exhaled air. Because of their loose fit, however, a cough or sneeze by the person wearing this mask, can easily escape out of the sides of the mask.
#6 The N95 Respirator Mask
Scarcity: Rare (reserved for emergency workers)
Cost: $1+ each, sold in packs
Prior to COVID-19, the most common use outside of the health world for these masks was for people in high particle and chemical environments. They also typically come in packs inside emergency kits. N95 respirators have a good, close fit around the mouth and nose, forming a seal. These masks have good filtration against bacteria and mold, as well as larger particle items. Even so, an N95 mask cannot prevent the coronavirus particles from entering in, if you’ve noticed from pictures inside COVID-19 infected areas, the N95 mask is typically one part of a multilayered effort to keep a medical worker safe. (full disclosure: we didn’t want to buy this and take away from important use – we found this mask in an emergency earthquake kit stored in a garage!)
When worn, none of the masks above prohibited children (or adults) from hearing or understanding what the mask wearer is saying, which is important. A few reminders before you stock up on masks:
- Face masks do not help limit distribution on the exhale and/or inhale of virus particles. Essentially, wearing a face mask protects those around you, not the other way around
- Face masks also help contain the spread of viral particles from an infected person’s mouth, onto the surfaces below and around them. In some cases, people who touch their face more often may be prevented from doing so because of their mask.
Final note: of all the masks worn, our model enjoyed the comfort of the neck gaiter the most, and combined it with the dust particle mask (hidden under) for a multilayered filtered solution. Your results will vary, of course. Stay safe out there!