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The best and worst masks to protect against COVID-19: New study



To reduce the spread of COVID-19, we wear face masks to protect those around us from exposure to our potentially infected respiratory droplets. But if you’ve rocked a neck gaiter or headscarf for style or ease, according to new research, they actually don’t offer much protection at all.

Duke’s scientists compared 14 different types of face coverings – including 2 and 3-layer fabric and surgical masks, various N95s, a neck cuff and a traditional headscarf. They measured how many droplets came through the fabric when the wearer spoke.

Your results, published in Advances in science: While some masks work quite well, bandanas offer almost no protection against the transmission of breath droplets. And the neck seal they tested actually let more droplets through than if they weren’t wearing a mask at all.

Study of the effectiveness of 14 different face masks against COVID-19
Study of the effectiveness of 14 different face masks against COVID-19 Josh Erikson

Why gaiters and bandanas don’t work well

The Duke team did not investigate exactly why some masks worked better than others. But the Type of substance and how tight the mask fits to your face are both Key components how effective There will be face covering, says lead study author Martin Fischer, Ph.D., associate research professor of chemistry at Duke.

Bandanas leave a large gap under your mouth for particles to leak out of when you speak or breathe.

And the material and weave of a neck seal – at least that of Fischer’s team, which was a single layer of polyester / spandex – distribute larger droplets into several smaller ones, which actually increases the overall droplet count.

Smaller droplets not only create more droplets to inhale, but also stay in the air longer than large ones thanks to gravity. This further increases the risk of exposure to your surroundings if you cover your mouth with a gaiter when you drive past someone on a narrow path or in a crowded subway car.

N95 face masks
N95 face masks Sock photo / Shutterstock

So which face masks actually worked?

As for the most effective masks, Fischer’s team found a customized N95 best, most likely because it is both dense and thick.

However, the ventilated version of an N95 mask performed very poorly. This is not surprising when you consider that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last week that masks with exhalation valves or vents (i.e. the face coverings you might have during construction) will not prevent the wearer from getting COVID- 19 to be transferred to others. After all, just let all of your air out into the world.

Second best overall mask was a three-layer surgical mask, followed by a three-layer cotton / poly blend (like a family member may have sewn for you). The main reason for this is that the more layers the better – three helped significantly reduce the number of breath droplets that could pass through compared to two-layer or single-layer tissue masks.

The bottom line

Customized N95 masks work best – but these should be reserved for healthcare workers, emphasizes Fischer. Cotton masks now block around 80 percent of the droplets, which is “perfectly fine” for everyday use, he adds. Opt for a three-tier variant if you can. (TBD on when ties are better than elastic, says Fischer.)

Perhaps surprisingly, if a gaiter is the only face covering available, you should use it anyway. Fischer quickly points out that they only investigated one type. Other brands and materials could perform better. But at least fold your gaiter in half or three times so that you have more than one layer in front of your mouth for added protection, he suggests.

The closer a mask fits your face and the more layers of fabric there are between your mouth and the outside world, the better the protection. (A good rule of thumb: if you can see light through the fabric, it doesn’t offer much protection, says Fischer.)

Yes, these are two things that also make it harder to breathe out a mask when you exercise or wear it all day. But until we know more about who is a carrier of COVID-19, the goal of wearing a mask should be to protect others from your own breath droplets. And any mask is better than no mask.

Buff Filter Mask and Asics Unisex Runners Face Cover
Buff Filter Mask and Asics Unisex Runners Face Cover Courtesy of Images

In the middle of the pack

If you’re a hardcore fitness fanatic who sweats regularly, try planning your workout outdoors in less congested areas (i.e., parks) during off-peak hours. If you exercise in extremely hot and humid conditions, try the new Buff Filter Mask ($ 30). It comes with five replacement filters that block 98 percent of the particles in the air (they should be replaced after 24 hours), and the adjustable elastic bands at the back of the head keep it in place. Or, opt for Asics’ Runners Face Cover (40 U.S. dollar). It mitigates the spread of droplets by covering your nasal passage without affecting the breathability inside the mask. Specially placed air holes let air in but prevent your saliva from leaking out. These are not as easy as a N95, but these should also be reserved for healthcare workers. By being more strategic about where and when to exercise, in addition to wearing one of these masks, you will ultimately reduce your risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.


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