Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Whether we’re returning to school (eventually) or simply braving a trip to the grocery store, we all need a mask in order to safely venture outside of our homes. Unfortunately, there are many mask options out there, and it can get overwhelming trying to figure out which kinds blend attainability with a high-enough level of functionality.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “in countries or areas where there is intense community transmission of COVID-19 and in settings where physical distancing cannot be achieved,” people ages twelve and up (the middle through high school age group) should follow the same mask-wearing guidelines as adults; most businesses will also require mask-wearing by anyone over the age of two. So, what kind of mask should you use?
The WHO recommends that in school settings, a fabric mask be worn to “prevent onward transmission in the general population in public areas,” and notes that this type of mask will protect others from unknowingly-infected individuals. They can also protect the wearer from large droplets that may be produced when others cough and sneeze. Johns Hopkins Medicine states that fabric masks are best for “use in non-patient-care settings,” which can include anything from school and outdoor soccer practice to public transportation. You can even make your own cloth mask out of densely woven cotton fabric (like bedsheets), which you can probably find in your closet. Make sure to add two layers to your mask, and when selecting fabric, check to see if there are visible gaps between strands: a stretchy or knitted fabric will not capture the droplets that may be leaving your nose and mouth.
Cloth mask variants
A variant of the typical cloth face mask -- one with an exhalation valve -- is not a good option. In fact, it’s counterintuitive. As Matthew Staymates, a research engineer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), puts it, “The valves allow air to leave the mask without filtering it, which defeats the purpose of the mask.” A good mask will protect others from your potentially virulent respiratory droplets, and a great one may even protect you from theirs. A mask that does not filter your breath will contribute to our already rampant problem of rapidly spreading disease.
Other popular varieties of cloth face coverings include bandanas and gaiters. A folded bandana tied around the face lacks the wire filling that goes over the bridge of the nose in most other masks, allowing air to enter and exit, unfiltered, right below the eyes. Bandanas also lack any real shape, meaning that it’s very easy for air to come into, and out of, your nose and mouth through the wide gap at the bottom. Gaiters, however, go all the way around your face and neck, and can be effective if they are multi-layered and made of a fabric that is not stretchy, and that does not have space between its threads.
Surgical masks -- which are typically pale blue, made of paper, and loose-fitting -- perform even better than cloth face coverings at reducing the amount of respiratory droplets that you spread to others, and protecting you from large particles and splashes, which may be leaving the noses and mouths of those around you. It is worth noting, however, that they cannot block aerosol particles or very small droplets, which may be floating through the air, and surgical masks must be disposed of after one use.
Possibly the most effective mask is the elusive N95 respirator. These masks can filter 95% or more of any type of tiny particle, including viruses, and they protect the wearer as well as those around them. However, N95 respirators are not to be used by the general public, because it is crucial that there are enough of them in supply for the doctors, nurses, and others who are working day-in and day-out on the frontlines of the pandemic.
But there are more accessible alternatives to the N95, namely the KN95 and KF94 masks. These are almost identical to the N95 in function, filtering 95% and 94% of particles respectively, and can be purchased easily online. Like the N95, they are made of a non-woven, plastic material, and can filter particles as little as 0.3 microns in size. Though the coronavirus is only around 0.1 microns, it tends to be attached to a larger particle, like a drop of saliva. It should be noted, though, that the KN95 and KF94 are manufactured in China and South Korea, and, unlike the N95, have not been tested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Buyer beware: the market for KN95 and KF94s is a myriad of up-to-scratch products that meet health standards, and outright fakes marketed under the same name which lack the protective capabilities of the real deal. To get the best mask possible, it’s recommended that you do some research of your own when looking into a KN95 or KF94, to ensure that what you purchase is legit.
It’s up to you which mask you choose to purchase, but some are clearly more effective than others. Cloth and surgical masks are probably the easiest to obtain (or make), and will protect others from most of the viral particles that you may be unknowingly harbouring. KN95 and KF94s provide a high level of protection to both you and others, but it’s important that you verify the reliability of the brand you purchase them from. Whatever kind you end up buying, make sure that fabric is multi-layered, there are no visible gaps in the material, and that you aren’t wasting your time trawling the dark web for an N95.