All masks are not created equal. And one mask does not fit all. There’s a reason why the gold standard for disposable face masks, the N95, requires fit tests in clinical settings. A fit test consists of a series of checks to find the right size of mask for use on a job.
An excellent fitting mask can save your life if you’re a doctor working with a COVID patient; therefore, a tight seal is necessary to keep air out. Doctors and nurses who typically use N95 respirators undergo fit testing once a year to ensure they’re wearing the mask with the correct seal.
For the public, however, fit testing for a mask isn’t feasible, and N95 masks aren’t, for the most part, necessary. Surgical masks and cloth masks can help curb the spread of infection, and in many cases, those masks are all that’s needed.
Noticeably, surgical masks and cloth masks don’t always give you the best seal around your face. For people with small heads or thin faces, masks can droop or pucker on the sides, creating tunnels and crevices for air to flow through.
With face masks, you want to be able to breathe freely. You also want the air you breathe in to flow through your face mask, not through the accidental openings around the mask. If your face mask doesn’t fit properly, unfiltered air will flow in and out through areas on the side that aren’t flush against the skin.
Surgical and cloth masks will never have the tight seal that N95 masks do. But there are a few ways you can improve the fit and function of your mask.
6. Don’t Use a Mask with a Valve
Valve masks protect the user, but they don’t protect everyone else. Because COVID-19 may also spread through people who have no symptoms, every person must assume they are infectious. Masks with valves allow the user to breathe out potentially infectious particles, thus are not recommended.
5. Avoid Materials with Loose Weaves
If you’re choosing a cloth mask, opt for materials with tight weaves that allow air to pass through, like cotton and silk. You want droplets and viruses to get caught in the fabric, not pass through the mask. Scarves and thin t-shirts don’t provide the appropriate level of air filtration necessary to trap viruses.
4. Choose Masks with Wire or Bendable Plastic on the Nose Bridge
If you notice that your glasses fog up when you have your mask on, then you don’t have an adequate seal around your nose. When it comes to establishing a tight seal, the nose area is the most problematic part of a mask. A wire or bendable plastic helps to create a better fit.
3. Change Out Your Mask When Soiled
When a mask collects dirt and moisture, it decreases its ability to keep out viruses and bacteria. Ideally, you should at least replace your surgical mask every day. However, if you need to do so, you can re-use a surgical mask. If you wear a surgical mask for only short periods and it is not soiled, you can store it in a paper bag when not in use. Once the mask becomes moist or dirty, you should discard the mask.
Cloth masks can be laundered with your regular clothes and changed out at least once daily. Just like surgical masks, once a cloth mask becomes moist or dirty, it should be changed out for a new one.
2. Three Layers Are Better Than One
Surgical masks filter air reasonably well using a blend of material made explicitly for the masks. Homemade cloth masks, on the other hand, are limited to pre-manufactured fabrics usually meant for clothing. Cloth masks should have at least three layers to provide proper air filtration. Gaiters and scarves don’t have enough layers or a tight enough seal to filter air, which is why surgical masks or cloth masks are the better choices.
1. Use an Elastic “Hack” to Create a Better Seal
A popular video by Olivia Cuid, MD, has gone viral because of its simple, yet effective, method for making cloth masks and surgical masks fit better. Because the sides of the face can pucker, causing an air tunnel, Dr. Cuid recommends the following:
Take a surgical or cloth mask and fold it in half, lengthwise. Tie a knot on each side at the ear loops, as close as possible to the mask. Open up your mask and tuck in any fold or opening at the sides underneath the ear loops on each side.