How Effective are These Different Types of Masks or Face Coverings?

In the world of COVID-19, it’s important to protect yourself from the virus by wearing a mask or face covering, but with so many different options, how do you choose which one to wear? In today’s blog post, we break down each type of mask or face covering and its effectiveness in protecting you and limiting the spread of the coronavirus. But first, it’s important to know why, who, and when you should wear a mask.

Why you should wear a mask

Unlike airborne viruses such as tuberculosis and smallpox which circulate through the air, the transmission of COVID-19 mainly occurs through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth. That’s why it’s important to wear a mask, because it acts as a barrier to help stop the spread of droplets whenever a sick person is talking, yelling, laughing, singing, coughing, or sneezing. These droplets can travel up to six feet (two meters) away from the infected person, so combining social distancing with wearing a mask can greatly reduce your chance of infecting others with COVID-19.

Who should wear a mask

Since the coronavirus spreads through droplets from your nose and mouth, anyone who has the virus should wear a mask in order to limit the spread to other people. Additionally, it’s a good idea for everyone else to still wear a mask, even if you aren’t sick or think you’re not sick. Many people may be infected with COVID-19 but not realize that they are sick, such as if they have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. Since there are so many opportunities to come into contact and become infected by the virus throughout the day, it’s extremely difficult to be 100% sure that you are not sick.

When you should wear a mask

If you are sick, the best thing you can do is isolate yourself, but if it is necessary to leave your home or if you live with others, it is crucial that you wear a mask to avoid spreading the virus. Many cities have taken the advice of public health officials and have made the use of masks mandatory on public transit and multiple indoor public spaces, such as stores and gyms. As well, if you are caring for or will be in contact with someone who is sick or has symptoms of COVID-19, wearing a medical/surgical mask will help prevent you from getting the virus.

Mask requirements

It’s important that your mask meets the requirements set out by public health officials because otherwise, it won’t be effective in helping to curb the spread of the virus. The material of the mask, how the mask was made, and how the mask fits are all critical to its effectiveness. According to the government of Canada, your mask or face covering can be purchased or homemade, as long as it’s made of at least three layers, with the middle layer being a filter or filter fabric. It’s also necessary that your mask fits well and covers your nose, mouth, and chin without gaping so that droplets won’t be able to escape.

Now it’s time to get into the different types of masks/face coverings and how effective each one is in protecting the wearer and helping to stop the spread of the virus. The masks are listed in order from least to most effective for your reference.

Masks with exhalation valves

Masks with exhalation valves, such as industrial N95 respirators, are not recommended to be worn as they don’t limit the spread of the virus or protect others because they allow infected droplets to spread outside the mask. Thus, they are the least effective in protecting yourself as well as others.

Face shields

Although face shields seem to cover the entire face, they only protect the eyes of the wearer and should not be used in place of a mask or face covering. They can’t protect you from inhaling infected respiratory droplets from others or exhaling infected droplets that escape around the face shield that can then infect other people. They should only be worn in addition to a mask and are otherwise ineffective in protecting yourself and others.

Neck gaiters, bandanas, and scarves

While some people may choose to wear neck gaiters, bandanas, scarves, or a similar type of cloth in place of a mask, they are not recommended because of their minimal effectiveness in preventing the spread of the virus. Because they are relatively thin, this increases the likelihood of droplets passing through from your nose or mouth. As well, they aren’t well secured to your head or ears like masks with ear loops are, so they are more likely to slip out of place. It’s also a challenge to remove them without contaminating yourself. Therefore, neck gaiters may be better than no mask at all, but a proper mask will definitely offer more protection.

Reusable cloth masks

Reusable cloth masks can be homemade or store bought and are made of various types of machine washable fabric. If you choose to wear a cloth mask, you should try to wear one that has at least three layers of fabric, including a filter as the middle layer. A mask with three layers will offer the most protection since the thicker the mask, the more effective it is at stopping the spread of droplets. Cloth masks may protect the wearer against large droplets, but they are primarily the most effective at protecting others by limiting the spread of the virus.

Disposable surgical masks

These white and light blue surgical masks may be thinner than cloth masks, but a study in Aerosol Science and Technology states that they can filter out approximately 60% of smaller, inhaled particles. They are designed to protect against large particles and prevent the spread of droplets, which makes them ideal to be worn by the general public. Surgical masks with three layers, including a filter in the middle, are the most effective option for the public to help limit the virus. Since these masks are disposable, they are not intended to be used more than once and should be thrown out after wearing them.

N95 and KN95 masks

N95 and KN95 face respirators are the most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That’s because both an N95 or KN95 mask can filter out and capture at least 95% of airborne particles, hence the name. Its five layers of protection and tight seal on the nose and mouth protects the wearer from inhaling and exhaling tiny airborne particles, which means that you can protect others from becoming infected while protecting yourself at the same time. However, N95/KN95 masks are not recommended to be worn by the general public as they should be reserved for healthcare workers since they have to work in close proximity to people who have COVID-19.

It’s important to note that most of the masks listed here function primarily to prevent the wearer from spreading the virus, thus protecting others from becoming infected. Only N95 and KN95 masks can equally protect the wearer from getting infected and spreading droplets. Since those masks should be reserved for healthcare workers, the best option is to wear a three-layer surgical or cloth mask. Remember, masks are the most effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 when everyone wears them as that will ensure that infected droplets are not passed on to others, thus preventing them from getting the virus.