Want to find the best face mask for virus protection? Whether you want to donate some to your local hospital or need them to protect yourself as you care for an infected loved one, it’s clear that some face masks are more protective than others against COVID-19. Here, we’ll help you wade through the sea of options available to you, and find a face mask that offers the level of protection you need.
How do face masks protect against the coronavirus?
The coronavirus is spread when an uninfected person comes into contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets. Face masks help provide a barrier between the nose and mouth of the wearer and the infected respiratory droplets. High-quality face masks even help filter the air you breathe.
Factors that determine the best face mask for virus protection
The effectiveness of a face mask to provide protection depends on the following factors:
- Fluid resistance is the level of resistance to the penetration of fluids like blood and other bodily fluids.
- Filter efficiency measures the ability of the mask to filter out particles, including viruses and bacteria. The greater the filter efficiency of the mask, the greater protection it provides. The filter efficiency of a face mask can be divided into two categories:
- Particulate filtration efficiency is the efficiency to filter out particles at submicron levels such as viral aerosols.
- Bacterial filtration efficiency is the efficiency to prevent the penetration of bacterial aerosols. The size of bacteria is about 100 times larger than the size of viruses. Some masks can filter bacteria but still allow viral particles to penetrate.
- Differential pressure is how easily air can pass from one side of the mask to the other. The higher the differential pressure, the harder it will be to breathe through the face mask.
- The flammability is an important characteristic to consider when using a face mask in an operating room, since surgical fires are one of the top hazards in that setting.
What are the best face masks available?
The best face masks available for virus protection are medical-grade face masks. These include respirators and surgical masks.
Respirators are personal protective equipment designed to protect the wearer from inhaling infected droplets or aerosols. They provide the best protection against viruses as they have the highest levels of filtration and fit tightly.
They are tested and certified to guarantee their efficiency. These masks are disposable and should be properly discarded after use. Particulate respirators are air-purifying respirators that are designed to clean particles out of the air as you breathe.
Here are some types of respirators available on the market:
3M is one of the top companies that produce personal protective equipment. They have a wide range of respirators, which can be used for different purposes. Their N95 respirators are widely used by healthcare workers to provide protection from the coronavirus. The 8210 N95 particulate respirator is a good introductory N95 respirator that will get the job done.
This is just like the previous N95 respirator but with a valve. The valve makes the mask more comfortable to wear as it allows the air to escape when you breathe out. Valved masks can be worn for a longer period because they are less stuffy.
This respirator is NIOSH certified, but using a mask with an exhalation valve may allow infected particles out and infect those around you. Remember, you could be asymptomatic and not realize you have COVID-19. Be particularly diligent about social distancing, hand washing, and not touching your face if you are using a mask with an exhalation valve.
This respirator provides the highest level of protection available in an N-series mask. It is NIOSH certified to filter 99.97% of non-oil based particles down to 0.3 microns. This mask may, however, be much more difficult to breathe through which is why you may wish to go with an N95 if you have asthma or other pre-existing issues with breathing.
Surgical masks are rectangular and contain pleats that can be expanded to cover your nose, mouth, and jawline. These masks fit loosely around the face and do not create a protective seal from the environment. Their filtration efficiency is lower than respirators’, however, they are still able to filter large droplets.
Surgical masks are typically worn by healthcare workers, and also patients when they have open wounds. Now they are being used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through coughing or sneezing. Surgical masks do not have to be NIOSH certified but need to meet specific guidelines for FDA approval.
Categories of surgical masks
Surgical masks may be divided into the following three levels based on the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM):
- Level 1 – Low barrier masks that are designed to be used where there are low levels of blood, bodily fluid, and aerosols.
- Level 2 – Moderate barrier masks that are suitable for restoratives and prophylaxis, where there is a moderate level of blood, bodily fluids, and aerosols.
- Level 3 – High barrier masks that are suitable for procedures that involve high levels of spray, moisture, and airborne particles.
Where to buy surgical face masks
Surgical masks can be bought from a variety of medical stores. Cardinal Health offers surgical masks that are ASTM Level 3 and Level 1. Halyard Health offers surgical masks at all three ASTM levels, and Henry Schein offers a variety of different types of surgical masks that come in all three ASTM levels.
Studies on the effectiveness of N95 respirators vs. surgical masks
- A study that compared the effectiveness of N95 respirators and surgical masks found that there were no significant differences in preventing influenza between these two masks.
- In 23 observational studies that evaluated the effects of N95 respirators and surgical masks against the SARS virus, it was found that both these masks had a protective effect against the virus.
- In six randomized controlled trials, N95 respirators provided greater protection against clinical respiratory illness and laboratory-controlled bacterial infection as compared to surgical masks.
- A study testing the efficiency of N95 respirators and surgical masks against respiratory infection found that N95 respirators provide better protection. However, surgical masks also provided some degree of protection.
The importance of reserving the best face masks for healthcare workers
Healthcare workers who treat coronavirus patients are at the highest risk of contracting the disease. Surgical masks and N95 respirators are medical-grade face masks that are needed to protect healthcare workers.
Because of this, medical-grade face masks are not recommended for use by the general public. Instead, the CDC recommends that the general public use cloth masks or cloth coverings. These cloth masks are adequate to protect the general public from the coronavirus if it is combined with social distancing and hand hygiene practices.
Donate a medical-grade mask to a healthcare worker
Want to do your bit? Here’s how and where you can donate medical-grade face masks to healthcare workers:
Mask Match helps people donate masks directly to healthcare workers. They give the donator the address of the healthcare worker so that the masks can be directly shipped to them. Healthcare workers have to fill a form with their address and wait for a donation. Masks that are being donated are the N95, P95, R95, and KN95 masks, surgical masks, and homemade cloth masks.
GetUsPPE helps people donate not only masks but other personal protective equipment (PPE) as well. GetUsPPE consists of a team of physicians, scientists, engineers, technologists, and concerned citizens working to help communities get PPE to healthcare workers.
This is a global mapping tool and interactive directory for PPE needs. You can search for a requestor near you and help donate the PPE that they need. You have to follow the instructions of the requestor to drop off your donation.
Or donate directly
Hospitals all over the United States are accepting donations for medical-grade face masks and other PPE. Some of these hospitals include UChicagoMedicine, UHHospitals, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Penn Medicine.