What are the different types of face masks?

Authorities around the world and inside the United States have been recommending the use of face masks as the main resource for virus control to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. These authorities include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). You can now see people wearing many different types of face-coverings, some reusable and some are disposable face masks. What does the choice of a face-covering depend on? In which situations do I need one face mask or the other? Here's a brief explanation of the most popular and widely used types of face masks, including their effectiveness in protecting against fluid droplets.

  1. Homemade or premade store-bought cloth mask

These can be easily made at home, with or without the need for a sewing machine, or you can buy them already made for you at a store. The effectiveness will depend on both the type of fabric used and the number of layers it has. For example, according to John Hopkins Medicine, fabrics made of tightly woven cotton are better for filtration, since they offer smaller holes to trap particles. Likewise, the more layers a mask contains, the more effective it will have since the particle will have to surpass more filtering layers to reach or to be released from the mouth and nose of the wearer. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Practice, two layers of cotton fabric can filter out about 35% of the small particles in the air. There are a lot of resources on the internet for patterns and tutorials to follow the construction of these face masks, as well as hundreds of online stores that started to sell these masks which are highly necessary at the moment.

  1. T-shirt mask

In the same way there is a lot of information on the internet about how to sew a face mask with some fabric, you can also find a way to reuse an old t-shirt to make one. Especially at the beginning of the year, there were multiple tutorials on how to DIY a reusable cloth mask from a t-shirt, but these aren't as effective as other options on this list. According to a study from the Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, they are about a third as effective as medical-grade face masks, like surgical masks. To increase the effectiveness of t-shirt masks, just like we explained on the homemade face masks, doubling up on the layers is a good option, and always try to go for tightly woven fabrics.

  1. Cloth masks with an additional filter

If you buy a cloth mask from a store, you might have noticed that some of them come with a pocket. Some tutorials on how to make your cloth mask at home also have the option to add this pocket to them. This pocket is added to these face masks to have the option to add filtering material, which increases the effectiveness of the face mask.

Some materials used for additional filtering properties include facial tissues, but experts recommend using a filter made out of polypropylene, which is a synthetic and durable fabric used in the making of medical-grade face masks and respirators. They come with an added electrostatic charge that increases their filtering properties.

It's important to point out right now that, for the prevention of the spread of viruses like the flu and COVID-19, the use of face masks with an exhalation valve isn't an effective method of virus control. While these are used for more comfortable breathing, the exhalation valves release unfiltered air into the environment, which increases the risk of contamination and infection.

  1. Surgical or medical masks

Surgical masks are commonly known also as medical or regular face masks. They're a flat and thin mask made out of a fabric that resembles paper, but it's a non-woven material made of polypropylene.

They are intended to be used during certain medical or surgical procedures, in which it’s important not to contaminate the environment. They act both as a physical barrier between the wearer’s mouth and nose and the environment, as well as a filter for large particles. They primarily prevent the release of fluids from the wearer into the environment, and vice-versa. These are disposable face masks that are also sterile. They’re meant to be used only once and then discarded, and they can’t be shared with other people.

  1. Respirators like the N95 masks

These are the most effective for virus protection, with higher antiviral properties than the other options on this list. N95 respirators have been widely used by healthcare professionals during the pandemic, and they need to be reserved for them because they’ve become scarce during the last several months. At the beginning of the year, it was easy to find them for sale online, with options to buy them in bulk and wholesale, but now they’re very difficult to find.

Some of the most popular models are the 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511. They can be worn with face shields, and are usually confused with KN95 masks. The latter are respirators regulated under the filtration standard in China, while N95 masks are regulated under the filtration standard of the USA. They can substitute each other as they have very similar qualities.

Whatever option you choose, make sure to stay protected in public settings where you can come into contact with people outside your household. Kids over the age of 2 years old need to wear face masks in a smaller size, since adult-sized masks won’t protect them properly.

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