How Do Masks Actually Work?
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
By: Haanya Quadri
It is widely known that masks can prevent the spread of COVID 19 when worn in public. If most Americans wore masks, over 130,000 lives could be saved in the coming months. But how do masks protect us, and which type of mask is the most protective?
You may recall that in the early months of COVID, from late 2019 through early 2020, the CDC did not require face masks to be worn - in fact, they discouraged people from wearing them. However, in March of 2020, the CDC reversed their decision and urged people to wear masks. This contradiction of advice led many to become confused, and some questioned the validity of this new judgment. In reality, the CDC required face masks to be worn shortly after the discovery of asymptomatic cases. In these asymptomatic cases, scientists discovered that people who did not display any symptoms could actually pass on and infect someone else with the virus. Thus, face masks started to be worn everywhere.
A typical face mask works by trapping particles that you breathe out and saliva that is involuntarily released into the air when you cough, sneeze or even talk. Although it is extremely small, the coronavirus usually travels through these two types of larger particles. Masks with a larger surface area or breathing area are more effective because there is a greater chance of COVID particles getting trapped in fibers. Some face masks work better than others because of their level of insulation, size, or the type of material they are made of.
Let’s start by examining the safest face masks: the N-95 and N-99 face masks. These masks are the sturdy, white masks that many healthcare workers wear. They seal very tightly around the nose and face, preventing any particles from escaping. They are made of a spiderweb-like network of synthetic plastics. This structure allows for most small, medium, and large particles to be captured. However, this mask makes it hard to breathe normally and should be primarily used by healthcare workers because of their high-risk occupations.
Nonwoven surgical masks provide the second-best level of protection. These are the blue masks that you may have seen most people wear. Because they are nonwoven, these masks have a similar web-like structure of fibers. However, they are a bit less protective than N-95s because they don’t seel as tight on the skin, which makes it a little easier to breathe. It is important that people who wear this type of mask bend the metal nose strip to fit their nose; otherwise, the mask will not provide an adequate level of protection.
Cotton and other fabric masks are becoming increasingly popular because of their vibrant colors and patterns. Because of their woven nature, cotton masks have tiny gaps in their fibers. This makes them less effective than the other two types of masks. Although they trap most large and small particles, cotton masks allow for medium-sized particles to pass through. However, some measures can be taken to make cotton and fabric masks safer. Firstly, many masks have a gap to put a filter in; this filter can prevent pesky medium-sized particles from escaping without a filter. Additionally, make sure your mask has multiple layers so there is a greater level of insulation. Many masks have a vent to make breathing easier, but these vents can greatly reduce the protection that the mask provides. If you are considering making a fabric mask at home, make sure you use multiple layers of different kinds of fabrics, like cotton, chiffon, flannel, or silk.
Remember, how you wear your mask is equally as important as the type of mask. A mask worn under the nose or mouth will not protect you or your fellow community members. Make sure to socially distance yourself from others whenever possible as well. As the fall surge escalates and COVID cases surge around the nation, it is essential that we as students practice safe and hygienic habits to limit the spread of the virus.