What Can Be Used As A Face Mask Effectively?

Scientists have made it clear that physical distancing measures alone aren’t enough to prevent coronavirus’ spread.

Wearing a face mask is the best way to not only protect public health but protect your own health. But, just because something covers your face doesn’t mean it protects COVID-19.

While cost might seem like the deciding factor between a DIY homemade mask (usually a bandana or cloth face covering) or the CDC-approved N95 respirators, those on the front lines fighting the disease warn that the little details make a big difference.

Our job is to keep you safe during the coronavirus pandemic, so here’s a quick and easy overview of what is most effective and what to expect if you use household items to make your own mask.

illustration people wearing masks

This article talks you through the following:

Why is wearing a face mask necessary?

What can be used as a face mask?

The best face mask to protect against COVID-19

Face masks vs. scarves

Face masks vs. bandanas

Face masks vs. neck gaiters

Why Is Wearing A Face Mask Necessary?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that face masks protect against the spread of COVID-19. Coronavirus is transmitted in the microscopic droplets that are emitted when people breathe and speak. Wearing a face mask acts as a barrier to reduce those small particles that spread COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many studies have focused on the role of face masks. The vast majority of studies have concluded that COVID-19 can be reduced by a mix of social distancing, face masks, hand washing, and contact tracing to help limit infection.

Face masks work because they provide a physical barrier that can minimize germs, viruses, and bacteria. But, research now shows that many masks offer a false sense of security.

While high-risk individuals are in the greatest danger of having severe health problems, anyone can contract COVID-19 and become ill, which means selecting the right mask is an essential part of reducing the spread and keeping others safe.

What Can Be Used As A Face Mask?

Technically, almost anything that covers your mouth and nose can be called a “face mask,” but that doesn’t mean it protects you or others from COVID-19. 
An effective mask to protect against COVID-19 must:

  • Have a tight seal around the nose and mouth.
  • Effectively filter out small particles that could contain COVID-19, so the wearer is less susceptible to breathing them in.
  • Effectively prevent the wearer from spreading viral particles.
  • Protect not only your health but public health at the same time.

Based on these criteria, the safest options have the highest standard of filtration for viruses, which means any mask with a Particle Filtration Efficiency or “PFE” of above 95%.

There are many masks vetted by the CDC that meet this standard, and many that are imported from other countries to the USA that has met the 95% PFE standard with their own regulating body. These types of masks are called “respirators.” 
Respirator masks that have a rating of above 95% PFE come in a variety of names, including:

  • KN95
  • N95
  • N99
  • FFP2
  • FFP3

They come in all different styles and options, including earloops or the more tightly fitting headband straps. 

Unlike cloth masks, respirators provide a tight seal around the nose and mouth so that the tiny aerosol droplets from sneezes or talking can’t enter or escape. 

They also have a small wire that bends to form fit to the bridge of your nose to achieve that tighter seal. 

Let’s see how everyday household items compare to what makes an effective face mask for stopping the spread, or contraction, of COVID-19.

Respirator Face Masks Vs. Scarves

While it is better to wear something to cover your mouth and nose than no face covering at all, a simple scarf is not a recommended form of protection against contracting or spreading COVID-19. 

Scarves are pliable, loose, and the opposite of form-fitting. 

Most scarves are thrown over the face quickly to enter a store. They slouch down and often move while shopping. Wearers often re-wrap the scarf differently the next time they enter a new store. When the scarf is wrapped differently, what would have been the “front” could now face inwards and contaminate the wearer. 

While scarves will provide the wearer with a minimal physical barrier, they will not offer the same protection level as a respirator face mask. They don’t filter tiny viral particles, they can cause trouble breathing, and they’re impractical for keeping sterile.

Respirator Face Masks Vs. Bandanas

Similar to wearing a scarf in the place of a medical mask, bandanas are not nearly as effective as respirator face masks at reducing the spread of COVID-19 or the contraction of it. 

First, most bandana wearers only have one or two cotton layers in front of their nose and mouth — and loosely at that. 

The bare minimum recommendation for making your own mask is three layers of tightly knit material. 

And even with three layers of tightly knit material, you’re more likely to protect those around you than you are to protect yourself.

Respirator Face Mask Vs. Neck Gaiter

Neck gaiters are typically made of performance fabric and are worn when running outdoors or performing other types of outdoor sports. Due to their polyester spandex material, they are not as effective as a PPE face mask against the spread of COVID-19. 

Neck gaiters may even be worse for spreading COVID-19 than nothing at all. 

In a recent study by Duke University, out of 14 different face coverings tested, neck gaiters proved to be the least effective, producing more respiratory droplet particles than any other tested alternative. The other face masks tested were respirators, 3-ply surgical face masks, and homemade multiple-layer face coverings. As you might expect, the most effective of the 14 face masks was the respirator face mask.

Respirator Face Mask Vs. 3-Layer Cloth Face Masks

If you absolutely can’t access a respiratory mask, the best option is a cotton mask, made of at least 3-layers of fabric. 

Typically made of t-shirt material or tightly-woven cotton blends, these masks are the most effective in not spreading COVID-19. 

They are not as effective at preventing the contraction of COVID-19, so if you must resort to this type of mask, make sure everyone around you is also masked. 

Suppose you have to enter a grocery store or other public setting where mask mandates aren’t enforced. In that case, it’s best to avoid cloth face masks and opt for respiratory masks, which better ensure you’re protected from the people around you — even if they’re choosing not to protect you. 

It’s also essential to wash all cloth masks in hot water in the washing machine after each and every use. Ideally, you’d wash these even after touching them or removing them once. 

While many people support cloth masks over single-use masks because they’re more environmentally friendly, reuse also dramatically increases infection risk — especially if they’re not properly washed. 

The Best Face Mask To Protect Against COVID-19: Respirator Masks

There is no denying which masks provide the most protection from COVID-19: respirator masks. They’re not only designed to protect the people around you, but they also protect you from COVID-19. 

Respirator face masks are classified as PPE and are the world’s most-sought-after form of protection because they protect your mouth and nose against tiny viral particles. 

When the coronavirus first started spreading, it was recommended that respirator masks should be reserved for health care workers. Respirator masks are recommended for everyone now that the supply chain has improved. 

The masks are tight-fitting and filter out 95% of airborne particles, effectively preventing harmful substances or materials from being breathed in by the wearer – including the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19. 

If you’re looking for the safest option, there is no comparison. Choose a respirator face mask.

For more information on the correct way to fit your face mask, read our previous blog post: How Face Masks Should Fit. 

Cover photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels.