Cloth masks, while better for the planet and a quirky way to distinguish yourself in this ongoing apocalypse, are recommended to be ditched in favour of better N95s or respirator masks.
They are the latest casualty of the Omicron wave that has swept the country and indeed the world. The virus is thought to be 105% more transmissible than the Delta variant, according to a recent French study, which is itself already 60% more contagious than other strains.
Because of its high rate of transmission, your standard cloth mask is simply not going to cut it when it comes to stopping the spread. Although we thought we’d seen the back of them, with more states introducing mask mandates in response to the rising case numbers, it looks like we’re going to be mouthing obscenities to strangers under a face covering for some time yet.
However, with health authorities in the US encouraging citizens to swap out their homemade or reusable cloth masks for a more protective one, we examine just what makes a mask worthy of wearing.
Before we get into it, we should point out that most masks are not really there for your protection. Yes, they might limit your chances of catching the virus, but, depending on the mask, it is not likely to be by much. Instead, we wear masks to stop ourselves from spreading COVID in case we have the virus and don’t know it yet.
The most recent guidelines from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee state that “Individuals choosing to wear masks in the community may use any type of well-fitted mask”.
However, the Australian government’s Infection Control Expert Group says that, while “certain types of cloth mask can reduce transmission,” they are “significantly less effective than surgical masks.”
Reusable cloth masks, in order to block “respiratory droplets,” need to be made from at least two layers of thick fabric, preferably three.
They also need to be washed after each use, or at least every day. The longer you wear them, the wetter they become, and the effectiveness of the mask starts to decrease.
While they might not be the most practical, there are strong environmental reasons to wear a reusable cloth mask. Currently, the world is using more than 129 billion face masks a day and the surgical kind take around 450 years to break down.
It’s one of those ‘try not to think too much about it’ environmental shadows of the pandemic and you can help limit your contribution to it with a cloth mask.
Surgical masks offer better protection than your standard cloth mask and have become a staple of the pandemic. While initially they were encouraged not to be worn, as medical services needed them to continue working, it’s clear that the blue surgical mask has become the icon of the pandemic.
They’re made out of four layers of melt-blown polymer, with the outside layer being a water-resistant layer. The middle layers are made of microfibers that carry an electrostatic charge which stops particles from moving through the masks.
Their use has been shown to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus as well as other viruses, though this is subject to use. Most people do not wear the mask tight around the nose and chin and if you have a beard they’re going to be an even looser fit. Respiratory particles escaping out the side of the mask if you cough, sneeze, or even breathe can still carry COVID and can still infect people, although a lot less will be escaping than if you wore a cloth mask or no mask at all.
Surgical masks were also not designed to stop the wearer from being infected. They’re really supposed to be used in cases where someone wouldn’t want to transmit bacteria from themselves to someone else, like, as the name would suggest, when performing surgery. This means that, while you’re not likely to be very well protected by wearing one, if we all do so, the chances of spreading the virus become much lower.
The masks are also not designed to be washed and ought to be thrown out after use. When doing so, make sure to snip the strings on them to ensure animals aren’t trapped in them if they end up in the environment. Replacing your mask every day is a good idea, although, as stated above, this takes a pretty heavy toll on the environment.
N95s, KN95s, P2s, or KF94s are all types of respiratory protective devices, otherwise known as respirators, that are sold in Australia to high minimum protective standards. These are the kinds of masks you would wear while performing tasks where you really need to filter particles out of the air like painting or sanding.
The numbers on most of them, except the P2s, indicate the percentage level of small airborne particles that they filter out. P2s also filter out 95% but they are so-called because they meet Australian standards and are endorsed by the Australian government, whereas the rest are built to American or Japanese standards.
These are heavy-duty masks that became popular during the Black Summer bushfires as they are also effective at filtering out smoke.
While they’re good, they also need to be worn correctly in order to have the desired effect. Most people who wear these types of masks in their everyday jobs have to be trained in how to fit them properly and it’s likely that most people aren’t using them right.
N95 masks come in different sizes so it’s important to use one that fits you properly. When you’ve got it, press it against your face, pull the bottom band over your head and around your neck and the top one onto the back of your head. Then press the metal band at the top around your nose. You can do a breath check to see if there is air leakage by cupping your hands around the mask and breathing out like in this video below:
The trouble with N95 masks is that they’re not designed to be worn for long periods of time. They filter out air particles well but they also filter out air. It can become difficult to breathe under one so maybe don’t use this type if you know you’re going to be doing a lot of walking for a long period of time.
They’re also one-time usage and should be thrown out when you’re done with them, again, not great for the planet.
Finally, masks with little vents in them are not recommended for use as the vents allow the free flow of air out of the mask, defeating the whole purpose of wearing one.