The message from public health officials is clear: You should wear a mask when you go out in public to help limit the spread of COVID-19. But information on exactly what kind of mask to wear and how effective they are has been limited.
Now, new research from Florida Atlantic University aims to give a little guidance. For the study, which was published in the journal Physics of Fluids, researchers tracked "coughs" and "sneezes" (using a smoke machine) out of a mannequin head, and used a laser to detect droplets.
The team put several different types of cloth face masks on the mannequin and then tracked how many respiratory droplets from the mannequin's coughs and sneezes got through the masks, as well as how far they traveled.
Here’s what they discovered: Loosely folded face masks and bandana-style covering reduced the distance that droplets traveled by 1/8 or one half of what it would be for an uncovered cough. Well-fitted face masks with multiple layers of quilting fabric and cone-style masks were the most effective. Droplets only traveled about 8 inches with the cone-style masks, and 2.5 inches with a quilted mask. By comparison, they traveled more than a foot with a folded handkerchief and greater than 3 feet, 7 inches with a bandana made of T-shirt material.
So, what are the best face masks for COVID-19?
This is how the study breaks face masks down by effectiveness, from most to least effective:
A stitched mask made from quilting cotton
A cone mask
A folded handkerchief
Keep this in mind too, per the study’s researchers: “Our observations suggest that a higher thread count by itself is not sufficient to guarantee better stopping-capability; The bandana covering, which has the highest thread count among all the cloth masks tested, turned out to be the least effective.”
The study comes not long after the World Health Organization (WHO) released recommendations on cloth face masks.
In early June, the WHO released guidance on what, exactly, people should look for in a cloth face covering. Here’s what they recommend:
Masks should have at least three layers of fabric.
The inner layer should be made of absorbent material, like cotton.
The middle layer is designed to work like a barrier and should be made of a non-woven material like polypropylene.
The outer layer should be made of a non-absorbent material like polyester or a polyester blend.
The WHO also recommended that people avoid stretchy face masks for their lack of ability to filter out particles, as well as ones that are made of silk or gauze. More advice, per the WHO: Face masks need to have a close fit over your nose, cheeks, and chin.
Don’t panic if your mask isn’t perfect.
While there’s now more information on the best masks to use, experts say that wearing anything that covers your nose and mouth is better than nothing. “Just use something, even if it’s only a scarf or shawl,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, OH, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees. “It’s so important that we keep pushing the message to use masks,” he says, adding that social distancing is still the most important tool we have at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
And, while there is a lot of emphasis on wearing a mask to protect other people, Dr. Watkins says it likely offer some protection for you too, given that it’s a physical barrier.
So, wear a mask. And if it happens to be made from quilting cotton, even better.
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