The authors of the study noticed that while most news outlets and public health information sources recommend face masks, very few of these resources specify which fabrics should be used to offer the best protection against the novel coronavirus. On one hand, this is understandable, as there is an ongoing shortage of face masks and other protective equipment in many countries, and limiting the list of face coverings to just one specific kind or face mask or fabric could discourage people from using face coverings altogether or further worsen these shortages.
On the other hand, the public, especially those who fall into the high-risk group for catching Covid-19, such as the elderly and immunocompromised individuals, should certainly be aware of the level of protection they will be getting from various face masks. It would be deceptive to say that a superfluous covering like a folded bandana or scarf over one's mouth and nose would be as effective at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, as the now-famous N95 respirator (picture can be seen above) because this simply isn't the case.
Naturally, all protective coverings will filter out a certain percentage of the virus, which is exactly why governmental agencies and public health agencies continue urging us to wear masks. As Dr.Teresa Amato, the director of a geriatric emergency center explained to Healthline, “If you are infected and you wear a mask, you will decrease the likelihood of transmission. You’re wearing it to protect the people around you and you’re also wearing it to protect yourself from getting it. It’s really important to emphasize that more people wearing masks will decrease transmission overall.”
When it comes to the specific kinds of face masks and their effectiveness of decreasing transmission, however, the researchers point out that the range varies quite significantly. The least effective coverings are those that are made of a single layer of breathable fabric, like a bandana, scarf, or single-layer reusable cloth mask. The rule of thumb is: if you look through the bandana in the sun and you see some light shining through the fibers of the mask or covering, it's not a good mask.
That said, by far not all handmade cloth masks are necessarily bad, the researchers find. In fact, well-fitting homemade face masks made of two layers of quilting fabric were among the best at filtering out the germs, as good, if not better than surgical masks. As the authors conclude, “For minimizing the chances of transmission, it is important to use masks made of good quality tightly woven fabric, as well as mask designs that provide a good seal along the edges without being uncomfortable.”
Other excellent choices for personal protection are surgical masks, as these are lightweight, single-use and they offer adequate filtering. So, using them is also a good idea, if you can find those. Cone masks are compatible, but many of those are made with plastic, so they may be trickier to use during the summer heat.
Finally, the most effective masks on the list of the study were N95 respirators - special tight-fitting masks used by medical workers who deal with contagious diseases like Covid-19 and others. While these masks are very reliable, it needs pointing out that wearing them improperly renders them ineffective. In addition, not everyone can wear N95 respirators either: men have to shave off their facial hair when wearing these masks, for example. Lastly, breathing in an N95 mask is very difficult when fitted properly, and the tight fit can cause bruising and irritation on the face. Thus, certainly, these respirators should be reserved for medical professionals who need them most and know how to use them properly.
Therefore, while face coverings do certainly help prevent the spread of Covid-19 if combined with other social distancing tactics, you must remember that masks that are made of a single layer and those that don't fit properly aren't nearly as effective as we'd like them to be. When going outside, opt for double-layered quilting cotton cloth masks, cone masks, and surgical masks.
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