A User’s Guide to Face Masks

Almost overnight, masks of all shapes, colors and styles have appeared on the faces around us. Here’s how to decide what mask works best for you.

N95 respirator masks: These masks fit tightly to the face and have the highest filtration efficiency, blocking 95 percent of particles of 0.3 microns or larger. An N95 mask protects medical workers who come into contact with high doses of the virus while visiting and carrying out medical procedures on multiple patients. The rest of us don’t need that level of protection, so these masks should be reserved for health care workers only. To learn more about how these masks work, check out this video animation from the Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab.

Medical masks: These are also in short supply and should be used only by medical workers. Sometimes called surgical masks or procedure masks, these masks are those rectangular shaped coverings (often pleated) that come with elastic ear loops. Medical masks are made of a paper-like nonwoven material, and are often given to a coughing patient waiting to see a doctor. Compared to the N95 mask, a medical mask filters about 60 to 80 percent of particles and, according to the Food and Drug Administration, mostly blocks “large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter that may contain germs.”

Homemade fabric masks: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we cover our faces with a scarf or homemade fabric mask when we are in public. The effectiveness of homemade masks varies depending on the fabric used, the style and the fit.

In laboratory tests, some homemade masks did a poor job, while others rivaled the filtration of a medical mask. In another study, 21 people made their own masks out of T-shirts, and researchers compared the homemade masks to medical masks. “Both masks significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled by volunteers,” although surgical masks were better, wrote the study authors. In community studies, homemade masks were found to offer some protection during viral outbreaks.

You can sew a mask using a number of mask patterns circulating on the internet or try a no-sew pattern. We’ve included links to both in this guide, under “How to make a mask,” below.

Remember, any face covering is better than no face covering. While some people are experimenting with homemade masks using air filters and vacuum bags, the average person doesn’t need that level of protection if you’re practicing social distancing and leaving the house only for essentials. Given that there is so much variability in fabrics, the best advice is to start with a light test. Hold the fabric or mask up to the light and see how much light gets through. The tighter the weave, the less light you’ll see, and the more protection you’ll get. Test the fabric over your face to make sure you can still breathe through it, though.

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