by Waverly Yang, The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy
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Coronavirus Masks: What You Need to Know
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended that all Americans wear cloth face masks in public places, stating that there was increasing evidence that up to 25% of carriers who don’t show symptoms themselves are spreading coronavirus to others. If everyone wears a mask in public, it will reduce the risk that asymptomatic carriers who don’t realize they are infected will spread the virus to others. Wearing a mask may also reduce your risk of getting infected with coronavirus.
Will Wearing a Mask Protect Me From Getting Coronavirus?
A properly fitted mask provides two-fold protection for the wearer and those around them. For the wearer, it can protect the face from large droplets released by someone’s cough, sneeze, or breath, and it can also help block the wearer from exposing others to infectious droplets through the same means. However, the level of protection a mask provides depends on its material and proper usage by the wearer.
Coronavirus Protection: N95 Masks vs Surgical Masks vs Cloth Masks
The masks that provide the best protection against coronavirus are N95 masks and certain surgical masks:
- A tight-fitting N95 mask that is properly fitted to the face is able to block out small particle aerosols and large droplets (roughly 95% of airborne particles) through which the virus is typically transmitted.
- A surgical mask, which is made from a more porous material and has a looser fit than an N95 mask, is more effective at limiting the spread of droplets from coughs and sneezes coming from the wearer. Because it is highly permeable, it does not provide much protection against small virus particles.
N95 and surgical masks are considered critical supplies, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and medical first responders who need the masks as they come in direct contact with coronavirus patients.
For non-healthcare workers, the CDC currently recommends wearing cloth face masks if we must leave the home. You can make your own mask by repurposing old t-shirts, fabrics, or blankets around your home. The CDC has provided a step-by-step, illustrated tutorial with sew and no-sew instructions for homemade masks. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams also has a tutorial on YouTube on how to make a no-sew face mask.
What Kind of Fabric is Best for a Homemade Mask?
The ideal type of fabric will have a thicker, high thread count and a tighter weave (e.g., quilting fabric). To see how effective your fabric might be at filtering the air, try holding a piece of cloth up to a bright light or sunlight. The more the fabric blocks out light, the better it should be for filtration. The CDC recommends layering at least two layers of fabric is key to maximize your mask’s filtration capabilities, especially with thinner fabrics.
Remember that the fabric must be breathable since it will cover your nose and mouth, and it should not get damaged or change shape from frequent washing and drying. Once you’ve picked out your fabric, wash and dry it on the warmest settings to make sure they don’t shrink later.
Putting Filters in Your Homemade Mask
Scientists have been testing the filtration capabilities of various household materials, such as vacuum bags and HEPA filters, suggesting that these materials can be considered for use in homemade masks.
A recent NY Times article reported the initial findings of Professor Yang Wang, who has been recognized internationally for his aerosol research. Professor Wang and his graduate students found that an allergy-reduction HVAC filter captured 89 percent of particles with one layer and 94 percent with two layers. By comparison, an N95 mask captures at least 95 percent of particles as small as 0.3 microns, while a typical surgical mask filters about 60 to 80 percent of particles.
Before using any household items for filter materials, confirm that they do not contain any substances that could be harmful to breathe. Some household air or furnace filters, for example, contain fiberglass, which could damage your lungs.
Fit Your Mask Properly On Your Face to Minimize Contamination
When putting on your face mask, make sure that the mask fits snugly against the sides of your face to create as much of a seal as possible. The mask should be tightly but comfortably secured behind your ears or your head and neck. Don’t forget to adjust your mask to completely cover your nose, mouth, and chin.
It’s important to take off your mask properly so that you minimize contamination of your face. You should start by carefully removing the mask starting at the ears or head and neck. Avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes when taking off your mask and make sure to wash your hands immediately after removal.
Wash Your Cloth Mask After Each Use
Cloth face masks can be reused and should be washed routinely, depending on the frequency and duration of use. Although we don’t know how long coronavirus can survive on fabric, one recent study showed that the virus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Therefore, it is recommended that you machine wash and dry your cloth mask after each use, if at all possible.
Do I Have to Wear a Mask if I’m Social Distancing?
Yes. A healthy person can get infected by coronavirus by exposure to respiratory droplets released by an infected person’s cough, sneeze, or breath. While the CDC’s recommendation to practice six feet of social distancing is designed to help you avoid contact with the largest of these respiratory droplets, smaller particles (known as aerosols) can travel much farther than 6 feet. In fact, researchers at MIT have observed that aerosols released from a cough or sneeze can travel up to 16 and 26 feet, respectively.
Although face masks help to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it is still very important to practice current recommendations of social distancing, home quarantine, and proper hygiene and handwashing. To learn more about proper cleaning, check out our blog Spring Cleaning: Coronavirus Edition. Combining all of these precautions will help to minimize the spread of the virus.
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