Which Coronavirus Masks Should You Wear?
Some have said that the guidance around wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 “keeps changing,” so they’re just not going to bother with them.
Technically, it is correct that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently issued newer guidance about masks. But our primary care doctors in Delray Beach prefer the term “refining.”
The reason is that this is a “novel,” or new, coronavirus. It’s been just two years since the first recorded case of COVID-19 in the U.S., and since its outbreak, scientists and researchers around the world have been learning a great deal about it.
For example, originally it was thought to spread the same way as the flu—i.e., in large droplets that fall to surfaces—which is what prompted the early recommendations regarding hand washing, surface cleaning, and Plexiglas shields.
Now we know that it is most often spread by means of aerosolized particles that can linger in the air for hours, much like cigarette smoke. This explains why it’s so transmissible, and also means that high-quality masks worn indoors are the best way to keep the virus from spreading.
When the virus first appeared, the government and various health organizations literally begged the public to avoid wearing N95 masks because they were in short supply and health care workers needed them. Now, however, they are plentiful and are generally considered the best protection, both for you and others.
This month the CDC issued new guidance about the best masks to wear, according to their effectiveness. The agency noted, however, that the best mask is one that people will wear consistently and that fits well.
“Masking is a critical public health tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask,” the CDC said in a statement.
“Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others,” the agency said. “It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
The agency offered further guidance on which masks are best, and—not surprisingly—the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH)-approved N95 mask tops the list.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks, and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the agency said.
As the name suggests, N95 masks are made to filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles, including dust, bacteria, and viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
Cloth masks work by blocking particles. Even the tightest weave still allows some of the tiniest viral particles to pass through.
N95 masks are specially made to actually capture viral particles, in much the same way a magnet attracts iron filings. The secret is the filter inside the mask. It is electrostatically charged to attract particles that pass in and out as the wearer breathes.
The design fits more tightly against the face. Therefore, fewer viral particles enter or escape around the edges of the mask.
One drawback is that N95 masks can’t be cleaned for reuse. If you’re wearing the mask daily, replace it at least every few days or if it become soiled. If you wear them only to go to the store, for example, they can last several weeks.
The CDC has a list of approved N95 masks you can check to make sure the ones you purchase are genuine.
Beware the fakes
There are many counterfeit N95 masks on the market. The CDC has a list of known counterfeit masks here.
When in doubt, there are markings to look for on the mask. These markings can help you tell a fake from the real thing. An approved N95 mask will have the following information printed on the mask:
- Filtering facepiece respirator (FFR) approval holder, i.e., the name of the manufacturer
- Part number or model number
- NIOSH filter series and filter efficiency level, i.e., N95 (or, for other types of FFRs, it could be N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, or P100)
- NIOSH Testing and Certification approval number, e.g., TC-84A-XXXX
- the abbreviation ‘NIOSH’ in capital block letters
- Lot number, which may be on the N95 abbreviated label or on the product packaging
What about cloth masks?
If you prefer to continue wearing a cloth mask, make sure to wear it properly. That means:
- completely covering your nose mouth and chin to prevent leaks
- as tightly against your face as possible, without gaps around the edges
- ideally without a beard, which allows viral particles to easily exit and enter through the facial hair
Cloth masks should consist of multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric. If you hold it up to a bright light source, you shouldn’t be able to see light through the fabric.
Study after study has proven that wearing masks reduces the transmission of the coronavirus. Now that the highly transmissible omicron variant is dominating the nation, it’s important to wear a mask. Especially whenever you’re indoors or in poorly ventilated areas with anyone who may have COVID-19.
Vaccines reduce the severity of the disease if you catch it. They can’t guarantee you won’t become infected. Masks can help lessen that possibility.