It’s easy to believe that every face mask works as well as any other, but not all face masks are the same. Understanding which face masks are the best options can mean the difference between staying healthy or getting sick. A study from Duke University sought to find the truth about face masks’ effectiveness — whether one mask worked better than others to keep COVID-19 from passing through its barrier.
Researchers from the study tested and ranked 14 types of face masks, ranging from the medical-grade N95 respirator to homemade cloth masks. The study tested how well each type of face mask could prevent airborne droplets from passing through their material. Although you may not be surprised about which masks ranked as the best, you may be amazed at the difference in effectiveness between them all.
When it comes to the least effective face masks, it was typically the masks with one layer of material, a shapeless fit, or loose weave. The face masks on the bottom of the list were more likely to be comfortable and breathable but were not the best at keeping out virus particles. The best face masks were, of course, the ones that are specifically developed to be effective preventions against respiratory infections. How a mask fits and the number of layers is integral to how well a face mask works as a barrier to COVID-19.
11. Bad: Neck Gaiters
Typically for outdoor use, neck gaiters are worn by hiking enthusiasts, bike racers, and people trekking through extreme weather. Great for keeping the face and neck free from dust, dirt, or sun, neck gaiters don’t excel at keeping COVID-19 viruses away. Neck gaiters landed last on the list of 14 face masks because the textiles used to make gaiters broke large droplets into smaller droplets — making the likelihood of catching COVID-19 higher than other face coverings in the study. Most neck gaiters are made of just one fabric layer, which doesn’t ensure enough protection from virus particles.
10. Bad: Bandanas
Bandanas are a convenient way to cover your face and work a little better than a neck gaiter, but there are more effective options out there. Most bandanas aren’t large enough to double or triple the fabric layers, leaving the wearer with one layer as a barrier, which isn’t enough to keep most virus particles out. Bandanas also lack structure and a tight fit around the face, allowing air to flow out through the sides.
9. Bad: Knitted Masks
Though thicker than bandanas and neck gaiters, knitted masks aren’t the most effective face masks out there. The knit allows for pockets throughout the mask that air can flow through, and they don’t provide a sufficient seal in the sides of the mask.
8. Bad: Cotton T-Shirt Masks
The same material that makes t-shirts so comfortable to wear doesn’t function well as a barrier against droplets. T-shirts are often soft, airy, and breathable—all factors that work against them as material for a face mask. However, it’s not just the material of a face mask that matters; how many layers make up the mask is also a factor. In another study, when cotton t-shirt masks are doubled up, they can provide 98% droplet blocking efficiency along with excellent breathability.
7. Good: Fitted N95 Face Mask
Unless they work in healthcare or manufacturing, most people aren’t aware that an N95 face mask requires a fit test to work its best. A fit test determines the correct tight-fitting mask size for the wearer. However, even without a fit test, the N95 mask blocks droplets excellently (only 0.1% of droplets passed through in the Duke study). This is not a surprise because N95 masks are made to protect people from air particulates. Used most often in medical settings where there’s a high risk of infection, the N95 mask protects the wearer and the people around them.
6. Good: Surgical Face Mask
Surgical face masks, also called medical masks, are the pleated masks popularly seen on surgeons and nurses. These paper-like masks are typically light blue or white. Though these masks aren’t as tight fitting as an N95, nor are the textiles precisely the same, surgical masks still function as an effective barrier from droplets that may contain COVID-19 (and other viruses like influenza) by as much as 67%. Whether worn by the infected person or those around them, a surgical face work impressively to prevent viral transmission.
5. Good: Cotton-Polyester Face Mask
When it comes to cotton or polyester masks, the more layers, the better, and the type of weave also chosen matters. For example, quilter’s cotton, which has a tighter weave, creates a more constructive barrier than a looser weave. Therefore, a homemade face mask made up of two or more layers of quilter’s cotton provides a sufficient amount of protection for both the wearer and the people around them and can, if made well, be as effective as a surgical face mask.
4. Face Mask Considerations
Have you ever wondered why some face masks have vents? Are you tempted to wear a face shield instead of a face mask? Because face masks aren’t the same, understanding how a specific face mask functions can help you decide if and where to wear it.
3. Masks with Vents
Most people will say that a mask with a vent allows them to breathe more freely—which it does. And that’s the reason why they’re not an appropriate type of mask to use during a pandemic situation. These vents, called exhalation valves, allow the wearer to breathe out without filtering their breath. These masks are for use in cases where the wearer is healthy but must work with people who are ill.
Masks with vents work well at preventing the wearer from getting infected. However, the vents do not protect the people around the wearer. If the wearer of a vented mask is an asymptomatic COVID-positive person, the vent allows the person to spread the virus freely. There is a definite danger of the wearer spreading the virus, especially if the wearer doesn’t know they’re infected.
2. Non-Medical Grade “Surgical” Face Masks
You may spot non-medical grade “surgical masks” in the stores. Although they’re convenient and disposable, they’re not exactly as effective as those used in hospitals. However, medical masks like the N95 and surgical face masks are better left to the people who need them most: frontline hospital workers. The non-medical grade store-bought face masks can be a viable option. When purchasing non-medical “surgical masks,” choose the masks with multiple layers to increase their efficacy.
1. Face Shields
Face shields are made to protect the eyes from droplets; they’re not meant as a barrier for the nose and mouth. Face shields should be worn as an addition to, not instead of, a face mask. Though face shields may feel much less restrictive than a face mask, droplets can easily flow out around the shield. Without a face mask, a face shield doesn’t protect against an airborne virus like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
COVID-19 vaccines are here, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to be complacent. The pandemic continues to ravage parts of the U.S., and hospitals are almost at capacity. To get the pandemic down to a manageable level, it takes everyone’s help to remain socially distanced, diligent about hand washing, and wear a good face mask. The best way to make a face mask work its magic? Wear it.