These days, it’s not a matter of whether you should wear a face mask in public. It’s a matter of what kind of face mask you should be wearing.
That’s because, by any measure, COVID-19 and coronavirus will be concerns to contend with for the foreseeable future. As of early May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 1.2 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 66,000 deaths associated with the disease.
Public health officials emphasize that the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to limit your time outside your home, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, and practice social and physical distancing (keeping at least 6 feet apart.)
A significant number of people infected with coronavirus spread the disease before they know they are sick. The virus can be spread between people in close quarters through coughing, sneezing, and even simply speaking.
The disease is especially dangerous for people older than age 65, and those living with cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, or immunity problems.
Also, officials warn that as more states re-open for business, there is a significant risk of further infection and subsequent heightened stress on local hospitals and healthcare providers. As of April 20, some states are requiring people to wear some form of face mask outside their homes. These states include Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
But which type of mask is best for you? As with just about any question about handling the pandemic, the right answer depends on your circumstances.
What Types of Masks are Available?
On April 3, the CDC recommended and Johns Hopkins University concurred that you should wear a cloth face-covering in public places where social distancing is challenging to maintain, such as in pharmacies and grocery stores — especially in areas with high levels of transmission.
But cloth or homemade masks are not your only option. They aren’t even your best ones.
Information on the coronavirus pandemic seems to change daily. It’s hard to keep up with the statistics, recommendations, as well as state and federal responses and requirements.
One steady source of reliable information is the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and its recommendations on the use of facial masks.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of masks and applicable recommendations:
Professional Respirators (N95s)
N95 respirator masks are the most effective masks made to prevent your exposure to the airborne particles and droplets that spread the coronavirus. Currently, in very short supply, these masks should be reserved for healthcare providers and first-responders. Those who do wear them undergo a fit-test to ensure they are wearing the right make, model and size to ensure a proper seal.
Ideally, N95s should be discarded after each patient encounter. You should also dispose of them when they are damaged or no longer form an effective seal to the face. Discard them when they become wet or visibly dirty or when it’s hard to breathe through them.
In the face of the severe shortage of N95 masks, the CDC released in April guidance on the decontamination processes for the reuse of N95 masks. You can find the guidance information here.
Elastomeric respirator masks are larger, full or partial face-covering masks with removable filter elements designed for reuse. According to the Consolidated Sterilizer Systems website, some kinds of removable filters can be sterilized in an autoclave, however, most studies recommend that other decontamination methods are faster, damage the mask elements less, and are sufficient in eliminating influenza-like agents such as Coronavirus. For more information on proper cleaning techniques for elastomeric respirators, click here.
Procedural and Surgical Masks
Like N95s, these masks should be reserved for health care professionals and first responders. Loose-fitting and designed to cover the mouth and nose, procedural and surgical masks create a barrier between your mouth and nose and airborne particles in your general area.
When worn correctly, surgical masks block large-particle droplets and splatter that may contain viruses and bacteria. They also help protect patients from germs that the person wearing the mask may exhale. However, they do not block microscopic particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or specific medical procedures.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, these masks may come with face shields and may be labeled as surgical, isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks.
Though surgical masks are often referred to as face masks, not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks. Surgical masks differ in thickness and their ability to protect you from contact with liquids. These masks can also make it harder to breathe while wearing one.
Do not share surgical masks or use them more than once. If your mask is damaged or dirty, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should replace it with a new one. To safely discard your used mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.
Shortages of these masks have prompted healthcare professionals to disinfect them for repeated use. According to Virginia Commonwealth University infectious disease expert Richard Wenzel, M.D., experts have reviewed possible methods to clean used procedural and surgical masks.
Here are some methods to try:
- Soak it in 75 percent ethyl alcohol and let dry
- Wipe down the mask with bleach
- Microwave the mask (with increasing concerns, this method is not recommended)
- Steam with vapor from boiling water
- Soak in soap and water
Cloth Face Coverings and Paper Masks
While cloth and paper masks are not medical-grade, the CDC reports that they may be helpful in non-patient care settings to contain coughs and to remind people not to touch their face. If you use a cloth face covering or paper mask, be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth when removing it. You should wash your hands immediately after removing the covering.
Cloth masks should be cleaned routinely in a standard washing machine, depending on how often you wear them. Always put the same side against your face, so you’re placing the outer, “contaminated” side facing away from your mouth and nose.
These types of masks come with limitations. They may not be effective in blocking virus particles that may be transmitted by coughing, sneezing, or specific medical procedures. They do not provide complete protection from virus particles because of a potential loose fit and the materials used. Paper masks should be disposed of after use.
What to Look for in a Mask
Medical-grade masks should be reserved for health care workers on the front lines caring for patients.
That leaves you with fewer options, but it also gives you a chance make the best choice from what is available to you.
The CDC suggests that you consider these key points as you choose a mask:
- It has at least two layers of fabric
- It is large enough to cover your nose and mouth
- It does not leave any large gaps between your face and the mask
- It should have ties or ear loops so you can adjust it
- If you wear glasses, look for a design with a bendable top border. This feature allows you to mold the mask to fit the bridge of your nose and prevent your glasses from fogging
Clean Zone Facial Mask Fits the Bill
You’ll find that the Clean Zone Facial Mask meets virtually every one of the CDC recommendations for non-medical cloth and paper masks. Clean Zone’s lightweight, triple-layered filtration fabric filters out bacteria, dust, pollen and protects you from exposure to fluids.