If Your Mask Doesn't Have These 4 Things, Get a New One, Doctor Says
Here's how to know if your mask is making a difference against COVID.
It's been nearly a year since masks have become a staple of our day-to-day lives in order to stay safe from the coronavirus. But while you may have been satisfied with that DIY cloth mask you made last March, efficient face coverings have become even more important recently as new, more transmissible coronavirus strains have started spreading in the U.S.—one from the U.K., another from South Africa, and a third from Brazil. These new strains are estimated to spread at least 50 percent more easily, which is why experts say it's time to reassess your mask. Read on to find out what your mask needs, and for more face covering advice, find out why Doing This to Your Mask May Make It Protect You Less, Experts Warn.
"With a more transmissible virus, that means every exposure has increased likelihood of leading to spread," explain immunologist and microbiologist Andrea Love, PhD, and public health scientist Jessica Steier, DrPH, co-hosts of The Unbiased Science Podcast. "Imagine a mask as a maze for these droplets to make their way through. The more convoluted the maze is, the more droplets you will trap and prevent from escaping to the environment. So, not just any mask will do—quality matters."
According to Love, there are some key factors you need to consider when choosing a face covering. "It's important to understand that cloth masks were intended to be a stopgap measure," she says. "Many that are routinely worn by people offer little to no protection, depending on the material, number of layers, and fit."
As a result, Love cautions that if your mask doesn't have the following four things, it's not fitting the bill. Keep reading to find out what you should be looking out for, and for more on masks, beware that If You Bought This Instead of a Mask, You Could Be in Trouble.
Tightly woven material with small pores
Love says material is a "critical factor" in whether or not a mask is protective. "Since the mask is serving as this physical barrier for respiratory droplets, you want to look for materials that are tightly woven, with small pore sizes or gaps between adjacent fibers," she says. "The smaller the pore size, the more effectively those droplets will be stopped. Fabrics that have low thread count or are made with loosely woven materials will be less protective, as they will allow the escape of more respiratory droplets."
While most medical masks have extremely small pore sizes, Love says to pay attention to material when choosing a cloth mask. If you want a more protective material, you should look for a high thread count or high fabric density. And for more up-to-date COVID news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
The new variants have resulted in more attention on double-masking, an idea even White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, has endorsed. As you'd probably assume, more layers of material means more protection.
A Nov. study evaluated the effectiveness of 11 different face coverings and found that masks with three layers offered the most protection. Specifically, the most effective mask consists of "two tightly woven cloth layers with a non-woven high-efficiency filter material sandwiched in between," Love says. "Upgrading a cloth mask to include that third filtering layer will improve the protection they offer."
However, if you can't add a filter, wearing two cloth masks with only one or two layers each is better than wearing just one. And for more mask tips, beware that This One Type of Face Mask Is "Unacceptable," Warns the Mayo Clinic.
In order to do its job, your mask should fit without gaps, meaning it should be fitted around the bridge of your nose and the sides of your face. Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician and health advisor for Invigor Medical, says paying attention to fit is "important to ensure that all droplets are filtered through the mask and do not go out around the edges."
Love and Steiner recommend cloth masks that have ties that go around the back of the head, as these typically offer a better fit than ear loops. However, if your cloth mask has ear loops that can adjust in size, that can help improve your mask's fit. And for more ways to stay safe, check out why Dr. Fauci Says You Need One of These at Home to Avoid COVID.
Does your mask have a valve? If so, it won't help in the fight against COVID, Love says. Exhalation valves allow air and respiratory droplets to escape out of masks easily. "This negates any protective ability of the mask material, because these valves enable easy transmission of those respiratory droplets," she explains.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns against masks with valves. "This type of mask may not prevent you from spreading COVID-19 to others," they say. "The hole in the material may allow your respiratory droplets to escape and reach others." And for more masks the agency says to avoid, find out why The CDC Warns Against Using These 6 Face Masks.