It’s pretty clear by now that face masks play an important role in minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Face masks act as a physical barrier to protect the wearer from viral and bacterial particles. Wearing a face mask in public, along with careful social distancing, has helped flatten the curve in many countries, particularly the ones where the outbreak initially started.
The CDC does not recommend surgical masks or air-purifying respirators (APR) like the N95 for the general public. These critical supplies should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers if at all possible. Face masks advised for use by the general public are simple cloth-based face coverings. This includes bandanas and balaclavas.
Although loose face coverings like bandanas and balaclavas do not provide as much protection against COVID-19 as a specialized, fitted mask, it’s a lot better than nothing at all. Experts suggest they are at least able to limit the release of virus-loaded droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Standard surgical masks
These are semi-loose fitting, fluid-resistant, disposable masks. Surgical masks are used in healthcare settings but do not offer full respiratory protection from pathogens. Surgical masks can only provide a barrier against large particles, splashes or sprays, or other bodily or toxic fluids. They do not effectively filter out small particles, gases, or fumes and can allow leakage around the edge of the mask when the wearer inhales.
These masks are usually used to prevent the spread of infection between health care providers and their patients. As these masks cannot filter the smallest particles, they are not completely effective against COVID-19 100% of the time.
NIOSH-approved air-purifying respirators (APR) come in different ratings and configurations and are recommended to be used by healthcare staff when dealing with infected or suspected patients with coronavirus. These masks come in three series (N-, R-, and P-) on the basis of resistance from oils.
N – Not resistant to oil
R – Somewhat resistant to oil
P – Oil-Proof
Each series is subcategorized based on a filtering efficiency (95%, 99%, 99.7%). These masks provide full respiratory protection to the wearer. The most widely-discussed APR at this time is the N95 respirator, which is able to filter out 95% of airborne particles, including coronavirus.
Although the N99 is better at protecting from infectious respiratory diseases (as it filters out 99% of airborne particles) the N99 has a high respiratory resistance, which means that it is not as breathable as other options, so usually, the N95 is preferred. N95 masks can be reused after following a proper decontamination protocol, according to CDC guidelines.
The “best” mask – the P100
The “best” mask for protection against coronavirus is the P100. This mask is durable but expensive and not readily available, so it is only recommended for industrial use.
Cloth based face masks
Simple, cloth-based face coverings that people can wear when they go out in public are the best bet for non-healthcare workers, along with responsible social distancing measures. These offer less protection against coronavirus, but they do reduce the number of viral particles that an infected person releases in the air by coughing or sneezing.
Although cloth masks generally provide a looser fit than N95 masks and their ilk, it is considerably better for you and those around you to wear these masks than to go out with a bare face.
Use of balaclava to protect against coronavirus
If you’re not familiar with balaclavas, picture a ski mask. Basically, it is cloth headgear designed to expose the eyes and sometimes mouth. It is commonly made of cotton, fleece, neoprene, and acrylic. Cotton and fleece balaclavas are light in weight, soft, and comfortable. Neoprene and acrylic balaclavas have good water resistance.
There are different designs of balaclavas available. They are usually worn for wind and weather protection, but can be used in a pinch as a coronavirus face covering, combined with social distancing.
Solid front balaclavas
Only the eyes are exposed in a solid front balaclava, and flexible material is used to make its rigid front. This type of balaclava is non-suffocating, and the mesh inside helps the wearers to avoid any heat or moisture buildup as they breathe.
These are thin, fleece face coverings that are usually used to provide extra warmth.
This wrap-around face mask is made up of waterproof neoprene material and comes with adjustable velcro straps to provide proper fitting.
This type of balaclava only covers the head and sides of the face, and it is a self-supported neck warmer. As it doesn’t cover the nose and mouth, it cannot be worn as protection against coronavirus.
These balaclavas can be ordered online or can be stitched at home, as long as the finished product adheres to the CDC guidelines for face masks.
Bandana face masks as an alternative to balaclavas
Since the CDC recommended the use of cloth-based face coverings for the general public, many people have started making their own masks at home by folding towels and bandanas, following CDC DIY tutorials.
How to make a no-sew bandana face covering
- A bandana or other square-shaped cloth (approx 20” x 20”)
- Hair ties or rubber bands
- A pair of scissors
- Fold the bandana in half.
- Fold the top down and bottom up to meet in the middle.
- Place a rubber band around each end of the folded bandana (about six inches apart).
- Fold each over the rubber band and toward the center of the mask.
- Your quick homemade mask is ready.
The CDC recommends that cloth-based face masks (including balaclavas and bandana) have the following features:
- A comfortable and snug fit against the face
- Multiple layers of fabric
- The ability to be laundered without causing damage or change in shape
While removing the face covering, individuals wearing a mask should be careful not to touch their faces, especially their nose, eyes, and mouth. They should also sanitize their hands immediately after removing it. These coverings should not be placed on children under the age of two, unconscious individuals, or anyone with breathing issues.