As the novel Coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and the world, many people are looking for the best ways to keep themselves and their loved ones protected. Fortunately, wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands regularly are the three best ways to avoid COVID-19. While most people already know how to social distance and wash their hands, wearing a face mask might seem like a foreign concept. As a result, you may have a lot of questions about face masks, surgical masks, and other face-covering options.

For example, what kinds of mask models work best against COVID-19? Is a surgical mask the safest option? If so, where can you buy a surgical mask? And finally, which surgical mask models are made in the USA? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s examine the different kinds of masks available to consumers:

What are your face mask options?

In truth, there are dozens of ways to cover your nose and mouth to protect from Coronavirus. Some people forego traditional masks, instead opting for scarves, bandanas, neck gaiters, balaclavas, and other makeshift cloth coverings. However, a recent study out of Duke University shows that many of these methods are far less effective than more traditional, medical-grade face masks. Moreover, the use of neck gaiters may even worsen the spread of COVID-19 by dispersing large droplets into smaller particles that can travel farther. In any case, let’s take a closer look at all of your traditional face mask options and their respective efficacy:

Face Shield

Face Shield Efficacy: low (<1% particle filtration)

In the past, face shields were mostly worn by medical professionals to protect from fluid splatter. However, they’ve now become a popular form of COVID-19 protection amongst the general public. Unfortunately, without some other kind of protection that directly covers the nose and mouth, face shields are highly ineffective.

When combined with a face mask, face shields provide an extra layer of protection. Without a face mask, they offer virtually no protection, as large and small particles can easily come from underneath the mask and reach your nose and mouth. Therefore, face shields should never be used as the first line of defense against COVID-19.

In addition to being relatively ineffective, face shields are cumbersome and awkward to wear. It takes additional time to put on and take off a face shield, so it may not be the best option if you need to quickly protect yourself from COVID-19 exposure. That said, face shields can provide additional protection for the eyes. The jury is still out on whether or not you can contract COVID-19 via contact with the eyes, but if it is possible, a face shield could greatly reduce the risk of COVID-19 or other harmful particles reaching your eyes.

Cloth Masks

Cloth Mask Efficacy: low to moderate (1%-70% particle filtration)

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and individuals have begun creating and selling cloth masks. These masks are typically chosen for the ease of use, comfort, and stylish designs. However, their efficacy is largely dependent on the material and production method. Single-layer cloth masks can filter out as little as 1% of foreign particles, while double-layer cloth masks block out between 30%-40%. 

Triple-layer cloth masks provide maximum protection and comfort. According to the World Health Organization, an ideal cloth mask has an inner layer that absorbs, a middle layer that filters, and an outer layer made of a non-absorbant material like polyester. Thus, the best form of cloth mask is not just made of cotton fabric. 

In addition to the number of layers, the type of material can also increase or decrease a cloth mask’s efficacy. Densely woven cotton fabrics typically provide much greater protection. For example, quilting cotton is one of the best options for homemade or store-bought cloth masks.

Finally, cloth masks with removable filters provide a great long-term option. These masks can be washed, but they also contain a pocket in which you can put a disposable filter. Adding a polypropylene filter to a double-layer mask can raise particle filtration to as much as 70%.

Surgical Masks

Surgical Mask Efficacy: moderate (50%-70% particle filtration)

As the name implies, a surgical mask is typically worn by a surgeon or physician during a medical procedure. Most surgical masks are single-use, disposable masks made of non-woven material. Typically, a surgical mask is green or blue on the outside and white on the inside. The outer layer repels fluids, while the inner layer absorbs and filters particles. Though smaller particles can make it through surgical masks, they are best for protecting you from airborne droplets.

The efficacy of a surgical mask will depend on its design. Contrary to popular belief, not all surgical masks are designed for surgery. Some surgical masks are designed for dental procedures, some for major surgeries, and others for general protection in a medical environment. However, you can expect decent protection while wearing a surgical mask in public.

While surgical masks are certainly effective at protecting you from COVID-19, influenza, and other airborne illnesses, they are not without drawbacks. As previously stated, most surgical masks are single-use only. This means that you will need to acquire surgical masks in bulk and throw them away after each use. They are not designed to be washed or re-worn.

N95 Respirators

N95 Respirator Efficacy: high (95% particle filtration)

N95 respirators — also known as N95 masks — are among the safest face coverings available. They are typically reserved for medical personnel, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many medical facilities quickly ran out of N95 respirators early on, which ended up worsening the spread of Coronavirus in the U.S. and many other countries.

Though the production and distribution of N95 respirators have increased to meet the growing demand, N95 protectors are still not recommended for public use. You can acquire N95 masks, but it is best to save them for the medical workers on the frontline of the pandemic. So, even though they offer maximum protection, you would be better served to wear a cloth or surgical mask.

It’s important to note that some surgical masks are also N95 respirators, which can cause some confusion. The primary difference between a standard surgical mask and an N95 respirator is the number of layers. N95 masks have additives and at least one additional layer, greatly reducing the risk of inhaling foreign particles.

Though many people assume that N95 respirators are the safest mask available, there are actually safer versions. The N99 and N100 provide protection that comes as close to 100% filtration as possible. Additionally, there are varied masks that also filter out some or all oil particles, like the R95 and P95.

Which face mask is best? 

As you can see, there are benefits and drawbacks to each kind of mask. Face shields should only be used in tandem with a more effective face covering, though they’re largely unnecessary. Cloth masks are widely available at retail stores and provide the most comfort. They are also easy to wash and reuse. If you’re good at arts-and-crafts, you can even create multi-use cloth masks at home (just be sure that you’re using the right materials and procedures).

Alternatively, you have N95 masks that offer some of the best protection of any mask on the market. However, N95 masks are in short supply around the world. If you have N95 masks, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you donate any N95 masks to your local medical facility. Thus, N95 masks are not the best choice for the average consumer, as they are best reserved for the medical workers treating COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

Finally, you’re left with surgical masks. While you may need to purchase a surgical mask from your local pharmacy or order them online, they are perhaps the best option for most consumers. They strike a balance between comfort and efficacy, without taking much-needed supplies from medical professionals. Thus, the surgical mask is the ideal choice for keeping yourself safe from COVID-19.

Finding the Right Surgical Mask for You

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made it easier for manufacturers to produce surgical masks. While this helped increase the supply of surgical masks, it also opened the door for low-quality surgical masks to flood the market. In any case, the FDA defines a surgical mask as follows:

“Surgical masks are fluid-resistant, disposable, and loose-fitting devices that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and the immediate environment. They are for use in surgical settings and do not provide full protection from inhalation of airborne pathogens, such as viruses.”

Thus, any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that is marketed or designated as a “surgical mask” must meet the above definition. However, it is extremely important to note that, according to the FDA, it “does not issue any kind of certification to demonstrate a manufacturer is in compliance with the FDA’s requirements” regarding face masks. This means that it is up to you to research the manufacturer and evaluate the quality of any surgical mask that you intend to use.

Which Surgical Mask Models Are Made in the USA?

To ensure the quality of a surgical mask, many consumers prefer to buy from American manufacturers. The FDA does allow foreign manufacturers to import PPE, including surgical masks, which increases the risk of even more low-quality masks flooding the U.S. market. Therefore, you can reduce the risk of purchasing fraudulent, faulty, or otherwise ineffective surgical masks by only acquiring your masks from U.S. manufacturers. So, which surgical mask models are made in the USA?

Fortunately for you, there are U.S. manufacturers for every kind of surgical mask. Whether you want to purchase a surgical mask with the best possible protection or you’re content with the simple, one-use blue mask that provides basic protection, you can find American mask manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Here are some of the biggest U.S. manufacturers of surgical masks:

  • 3M (St. Paul, Minnesota)
  • Kimberley-Clarke Corporation (Irving, Texas) 
  • Prestige Ameritech (North Richland Hills, Texas)
  • Moldex-Metric (Culver City, California)
  • Honeywell (Santa Ana, California)
  • BD (Franklin Lakes, New Jersey)

If you’re purchasing your masks online, be sure to look for the name of the manufacturer. For US-based surgical masks, you’ll likely see one of the names above. However, if you see a different manufacturer, be sure to check where the company is headquartered and where their production facilities are located. Finally, whether you buy your masks online or in-person, look on the packaging for the “Made in the U.S.A.” marker. If it doesn’t say that it’s made in the United States, you’re likely buying a foreign-made product.

Conclusion

While there is not a mask mandate nationwide in the United States, the CDC and WHO both recommend wearing some form of face-covering while in public. Additionally, if you live in a household with multiple people, it may be a good idea to wear face masks when you’re in close contact with others. Practicing social distancing (standing at least 6 feet apart) and washing your hands regularly will also help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Though we discussed many forms of face-coverings in this guide, it’s clear that surgical masks are one of the best ways to protect yourself from COVID-19. While you will need to acquire more than one, surgical masks are easy to put on and take off, comfortable to wear, and protective against medium-to-large size liquid drops. As a result, you would be best served to buy surgical masks to keep you and your loved ones safe.

However, you shouldn’t just buy any surgical mask. Since the FDA does not provide any kind of certification for non-medical surgical masks, it could be difficult to know if you’re actually buying a high-quality surgical mask. Fortunately, if you look for one of the US-based manufacturers listed above, you can take comfort knowing that your surgical mask was produced in the United States and meets American safety standards.

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