What Mask Should I Use to Protect Myself?

May 29th, 2020

Right now, we are all concerned about protecting ourselves from the dangerous COVID-19 virus.  Mask-wearing by everyone has two benefits. It protects the wearing from breathing in dangerous droplets containing the virus and catches droplets expelled from coughs or sneezes.  We are learning that many people can feel perfectly fine in the first few days of COVID-19 infection, yet they can still spread it to others.  The key point is that we all need to wear masks when we are around other people.  There are many different masks on the market.  Here is a ranking of commonly used masks from most effective to least effective.  Combinations of masks can also provide some added benefit.  I’m excluding some of the more expensive, industrial grade masks as those are not feasible to wear for most people.  Mask-wearing of any kind will always provide more protection than not having a face covering.

  1. N95 or KN95 Mask- the gold standard for protection.  However, it must fit right to be protective.  Be sure to mold the wire on top around your nosebridge.  When you put it on right, you should see a little bit of the mask “suck inward” when you breathe in. You can cover the N95 with a cloth mask to increase the protection.  I would recommend using these masks when you will be in close contact or in enclosed spaces, with people who potentially could be infected.
  2. ASTM level 2,3 surgical mask.  These are medical grade masks which provide some more protection than the average paper mask, are more comfortable than N95’s but the downside is that they allow for leakage of air around the sides.
  3. ASTM level 1 surgical mask, can improve the quality by adding an additional cloth mask on top
  4. Any surgical mask, usually have a lot of leakage on the sides, I would advise using a gaiter (see below) to close up those gaps
  5. Cloth mask doubled up with filter (coffee filter, air filter or paper towel) inserted between the layers
  6. Cloth mask- the thicker the fabric and tighter the weave the better.  If you hold the fabric up to the light, you should not be able to see too much light through it.  If the material is thin, double it up by folding it in half.
  7. Gaiter– these were originally designed for skiers but are quite comfortable and provide decent protection.  What’s nice about them is they often have ear loops to keep the mask from falling down.  They also feel a little less restrictive.  Wearing a surgical mask underneath would provide more protection.
  8. Scarf or bandana- these can be used alone or ideally with a paper mask underneath.  I would recommend these if you are in an area where you don’t plan to come into contact with other people, like when you are hiking in the woods.  You never know if you may come across someone and these can provide just enough protection.
  9. Any piece of clothing or paper towel wrapped around the face.  If you find yourself without a mask, lift up your shirt collar above your nose or place a folded paper towel around your nose and mouth.  These are not the best, but can provide some protection for short periods of time.

We should all be used to wearing face coverings at this point.  The key to staying safe is knowing what protection you need and in what situation.  Think about it like part of your wardrobe choices for the day, would you wear a T-shirt to a wedding?  Would you wear a tuxedo to a picnic? Again, some protection is better than none, but planning ahead is very important.  Put an extra mask or scarf in your pocket if you are not sure.  It could save your life!