Not all masks are equal when it comes to protecting against Covid. But which ones give the most protection? Could it be time to rethink your cloth mask for a more protective N95 face mask instead? Here, we explain the science behind what makes a good face mask, and which ones are worth investing in.
As Omicron Covid cases surge across the country, authorities in several states have once again mandated the wearing of masks to prevent the highly contagious variant from spreading even further.
In Australia, there are currently no rules in place to say what kind of mask you should wear. In fact, guidance from the Australian Health Protection stated in November that, “individuals choosing to wear masks in the community may use any type of well-fitted mask”.
The general advice so far has been that any mask is better than no mask. But as Omicron numbers continue to rise, infection control experts across the globe are now suggesting that we should instead, switch to surgical or industrial respirator masks (or N95s/P2 masks) to provide that extra level of protection.
So is your cloth mask just not cutting it? Here’s all you need to know.
What is an N95 respirator mask?
An N95 face mask— or P2, or respirator mask as they’re also known — is a US certified face mask made from three layers of polypropylene. The difference between respirator masks and cloth face masks are, they are much higher in filtration — they contain electrostatic charged fibres that trap airborne particles from being breathed in or out. They also have a much tighter seal around the mouth and nose, meaning there's less chance or particles escaping or getting in.
In Australia, these types of masks must meet the minimum protective standards — which essentially means they have to filter 95% of small airborne particles, which is equivalent to the N95 standard set by NIOSH, the US’s occupational safety body.
Whilst these respirator masks are generally considered to be the most protective masks on the market, up until now, health authorities all over the world have advised that any mask — be it cloth, surgical or respiratory — is effective at minimising the release of particles. But following a recent update on 14 January 2022, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now advised that cloth masks or coverings are not deemed protective enough to block virus-laden particles from escaping.
To put it very simply, cloth masks do not offer enough protection, and therefore could be one of the reasons why Omicron’s transmission is so high.
So does my cloth face mask provide any protection?
Yes, but it really depends on the material it’s made from and how well the mask fits. Cloth masks, when compared to respirator masks such as the N95, just aren’t as protective. They do offer a small amount of protection, but on the whole, they are less effective at stopping the virus from spreading.
The CDC recently updated their guidelines to reflect this. They state that: “Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.”
So, out of all of all the masks available, cloth masks are considered the least protective.
There are generally two main qualities that we should all look for in a mask. The first is filtration, and the second is how well it fits. Not every mask is designed to fit to your individual face size. Take disposable surgical masks for example.
Although they offer more protection in terms of filtration compared to cloth masks, if there are gaps (which often there are, as these masks tend to be made to one size only) then particles can still be released, allowing the virus to spread.
Of course, you can make adjustments for any mask to fit as well as you can — like adjusting the straps or ear hoops — but finding a mask that fits your face is fundamental when it comes to protecting yourself, and others. As is finding one that provides enough filtration to stop any virus particles from being released.
Even surgical masks are not deemed as protective as N95s. According to a 2020 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, surgical masks provide significantly less filtration than N95s, and cloth masks even less than surgical masks. Cloth masks, on the whole, don’t seal particularly well, so there will always be room for gaps and leakage.
So given the high transmission rates of Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, it could well be time to reconsider the masks we are currently wearing, and upgrade to a much more protective, well-fitting mask instead. That’s where respirator, or N95 masks come in.
So what makes a respirator mask better?
Leaking is a potential problem for all masks — even the N95 has the potential to leak, but part of its certification process is that these masks have the ability to create a good enough seal to keep any particles from leaking out.
N95s are so effective because of the materials they’re made from and their tight fit. The synthetic material used contains tiny fibres that are charged with electrostatic energy. These fibres are able to filter out up to 95% of particles in the air, if the masks are worn properly.
These masks are also much easier to breathe with, as the material keeps breathing resistance low. The higher the resistance, the harder the wearer’s lungs have to work. N95s keep breathing resistance as low as possible, making them much more comfortable, as well as being more protective.
Why was it ok to wear cloth masks before?
Experts previously thought that SARS-CoV-2 spread via droplets either though coughing or sneezing, when they landed on the mouth, nose or eyes. Cloth masks in this instance would be an effective barrier to protect against those droplets.
But now experts know the virus is airborne, it’s possible for those virus particles to build up in the air over time — particularly indoors and when in close proximity — when speaking and breathing. This means you need a higher level protection in terms of how effective your mask is at filtering out those virus-laden particles. The higher the filtration, the more protected you are.
Will an N95 mask give me more protection against the Omicron variant?
There's no difference in the way that face masks function against any other COVID-19 variants. The issue is that Omicron is much more easily transmitted compared to previous iterations of the virus, so it simply means that wearing a more protective mask will reduce your risk of spreading the coronavirus, no matter what variant it is.
How to wear your N95 face mask
Here are a few tips from NSW Health, to ensure that your mask is fitted properly without any gaps.
- Remove glasses and hats. Tie back long hair so it does not become tangled in the straps of the respiratory protection
- Put the mask on your face, ensuring the nose piece is at the top of the mask
- Place the headband or ties over the head and at the base of the neck
- Compress the mask against the face to ensure a seal across the bridge of the nose
- Compress the mask to ensure a seal across the cheeks and the face; and
- Conduct a fit check: check the seal of the mask by gently inhaling. If the mask is not drawn in towards the face, or air leaks around the face seal, readjust the mask and repeat process or check for defects in the mask. If the mask still leaks you may need to try a different size or style of mask.
Anyone with a beard should shave before putting on the mask to make sure it fits snugly on your face. A respirator should rest against your face with no gaps, especially around the nose and chin. To create a tight seal, form the nose clip and place both straps around your head, adjusting them if necessary.
You should also change the mask when it becomes moist. N95 masks are designed to be worn once for medical purposes, but for general use, experts say it’s ok to re-use a few times. Just make sure you throw the mask away if it gets dirty, the straps or nose clip aren’t fitting properly, or if it gets damaged and loses its functional integrity.
A good face mask tip is to leave it in a paper bag in a dry, room-temperature environment for a few days to kill off any germs. According to The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 respirators not be reused more than five times.
You should also ensure that you remove your mask in an environment with clean air quality.
Which N95 face mask should I buy?
Make sure you buy your N95 from a reputable pharmacy. These masks should have a cup, flat fold or duck bill shape, two straps that go around your head and an adjustable wire nose bridge. They’re also usually marked with the “NIOSH” logo or acronym in block letters, which indicates that it’s been approved by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, according to the CDC.
We’ve listed our pick of the best N95 masks for you to browse.
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