2020 has taught most of us about a bunch of new terms and products that we previously may not have known existed. Many of these are things we see on people’s faces—everything from Mingle Masks to N95s, KN95s, surgical masks, homemade masks, and even plain old bandanas and scarves.
With such a wide variety of coverings available, it can be hard to choose the most effective mask for your own circumstance. We’ve laid out the differences between masks, recommendations on who should wear what type, and some key things to look out for when purchasing masks.
Why do I need to wear a mask?
We know that the coronavirus is spread mainly through respiratory droplets that are dispersed from the mouth when someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks. Wearing a face covering over your nose and mouth helps to contain these droplets and prevent the spread of the virus to others. Wearing a mask can also help prevent you from contracting the virus via another person’s respiratory droplets.
We have access to multiple pieces of evidence that back mask wearing as a preventative method. One experiment used high-speed video to reveal that hundreds of respiratory droplets were generated when a person uttered a simple phrase. Almost all of those droplets, however, couldn’t pass through a damp cloth when a person’s mouth was covered with it.
Another study examined the death counts from COVID-19 across 198 countries and found that those with either cultural norms or government policies in favour of masks had lower death rates.
And, importantly, mask-wearing has been shown to contain confirmed cases of COVID-19. One man, for example, tested positive for COVID-19 after a flight from China to Canada. He wore a mask throughout the flight, and none of the other passengers contracted the virus, though they were encouraged to get tested.
Ultimately, by wearing a mask, you are not only helping to protect yourself from contracting COVID-19, but you are also protecting others from your own germs.
So… what type of mask should I buy?
We’ve outlined the different types of masks and what makes them different, plus the information that should determine which one is right for you and your business, family, or organization.
Face shields are reusable, fully disinfectable face coverings that are designed with comfort in mind. Fantastic for kids that have a hard time wearing cloth masks, as well as frontline/healthcare workers, certified face shields have been shown to reduce viral exposure by 96% when worn within 18 inches of a cough. These coverings are affordable, providing a single mask for long-term use that serves as both a nose and mouth covering as well as goggles.
The N95 respirator is designed to create a facial seal for the mouth and nose of the user. Certified N95 masks, such as these ones, provide at least 95% filtration efficiency. Simultaneously, the premium filter material makes for easy breathing. While these are fantastic and reliable masks for anyone, the CDC does not require them for the general public. They are, however, required in healthcare settings.
KN95 masks are very similar to the N95 ones. Offering a tight fit creating a facial seal, these masks provide at least 95% filtration efficiency. They are the Chinese standard for face coverings, while the N95 is the American standard. Anyone can benefit from the protection offered by the KN95 mask, but the CDC does not require them for anyone but healthcare workers.
Procedural masks have been shown to be three times as effective at reducing expelled respiratory droplets as homemade masks. They are categorized by 3 different levels: Level 1 is the general standard for both surgical and procedural use; Level 2 offers moderate barrier protection for low-to-moderate fluids; and Level 3 offers maximum barrier protection for exposure to heavy fluids.
Respiratory droplets from a cough have been shown to only travel 2.5 inches from the mouth while wearing a stitched cotton mask. The CDC recommends that cloth masks are made of at least 2 layers of tightly woven 100% cotton. These masks are perfect for the general population, and work well for public outings such as grocery shopping and work.
CHILDREN’S CLOTH MASKS
If a kids’ face shield is not preferred, children’s cloth masks with filter pockets can be adjusted by size, can work with head ties or ear loops, and are designed for maximum coverage while offering extra comfort and easy breathing.
Please note that any face covering is preferred to not wearing one at all. However...
While non-certified masks, such as Mingle Masks and bandanas, or cloth masks made without cotton, are not preferred or proven to be effective against COVID-19, experts say they may be better than nothing at all. Both Mingle Masks and bandanas, however, were not designed or tested to contain or protect against respiratory droplets, and offer lots of opportunities for droplets to get in.
When do and don’t I need to wear a face mask?
While mask mandates and protocols vary by region, the CDC recommends that face coverings are worn any time that you are in a public place. Namely, this means that any time you are outside of your own house or vehicle, wearing a mask is recommended in order to keep yourself and others protected from COVID-19. Exceptions, such as for certain performances, physical activities, correctional institutions, and workplaces, do apply. For full details, visit your provincial government website.
Children under two years do not need to wear a face mask. You also do not need to wear a face mask if you:
- have a medical condition that makes wearing a mask difficult;
- are unable to put on or remove your mask without the help of someone else, or;
- are receiving accommodations for a disability
How can I know that I’m buying a safe and approved mask?
For Face Shields
Ensure that the company you are purchasing a face shield from lists their certification and licensing. With any doubt, reach out to the company for information about testing and experiments completed, etc. All products found on Supply+Protect are from vendors who provided:
- A copy of the Medical Device Establishment License (MDEL), when applicable
- The Natural Product Number (NPN) for alcohol-based items, such as hand sanitizer
- Copies of certifications and testing results for products, when applicable
- Evidence of insurance
References or a demonstrated track record
Check to see if NIOSH has certified your N95 respirator by entering the approval number found on the mask in the NIOSH database. If your mask is fraudulent or unauthorized, stop using it and begin wearing a certified one. Health Canada has released an interim order for Canadian-made N95 mask equivalents. That list can be reviewed here.
Put on your face mask, hold and activate a lighter six inches from your mouth, and try to extinguish the flame by blowing on it. If you aren’t able to blow it out after several tries, it’s authentic; if you can put the flame out, then it’s a fraudulent respirator. If this is the case, stop using it and begin wearing a certified one.
For Cloth Masks
Cloth masks that are labelled as being crafted with at least 2 layers of fabric and 100% cotton “are best,” according to one study. Some companies are weaving other materials, such as copper or graphene, claiming they might increase efficacy, but it’s important to note more than just the material of such masks. “You have to know whether the copper or other chemically enhanced masks have the same ability as an N95 mask to form a tight seal and whether there are sufficient layers to prevent droplets or airborne particles from getting through,” says Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. A great way to test the efficacy of the material is to hold the mask up to a bright light. “If the light outlines individual fibers and you can see the light through fabric, it’s probably not as effective. The less of the light that you can see, the better the filter,” sid Dr. Scott Segal, an anesthesiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina.
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