As the COVID-19 pandemic is tightening its grip across the world, observing all the measures to prevent contracting the infection has become even more challenging.
Wearing a face mask whenever you’re in a public place has graduated from a request to a mandate in many places in an effort to try and curb the spread to a manageable rate. As a result, a large number of face masks from different vendors have emerged, each claiming to do the job right. However, for non-medical members of society, it can be challenging to know who you can trust.
With N95 masks and other high-efficiency PPE in high demand but reserved for health workers and COVID-19 patients only, there have been efforts to mimic the structure and properties of an N95 face mask to make and sell other masks that are now easily accessible outside the medical community.
As you evaluate your choices, keep in mind that the best mask is one you can actually wear. Comfort is important, but breathability should be your top priority. And you should always supplement mask-wearing with social distancing and good hygiene to increase your protection.
What is a breathing mask?
Breathing masks are face masks that cover the mouth, nose, and other parts of your face. They are designed to let air in and out easily as you breathe.
Sometimes masks include an exhalation valve to make breathing easier. While there’s nothing technically wrong with using a valve, it may not filter the air you exhale, making those around you vulnerable to infection if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus.
What makes the right face masks breathable?
Most manufacturers use non-woven fabric filters which are reusable. Additionally, to prevent smog, smoke, and dust particles from reaching the wearer, an additional layer of activated carbon air filter sandwiched between thin soft cloth materials is used.
Valves are situated in a strategic position for comfortable breathing. There may be a single valve or one on either side of the mask. These help regulate the temperature and humidity, and reduce the breathing resistance. The valves don’t allow dust or harmful particles to enter the mask. They have a one-way washer, which is removable and washable. When you breathe in, the washer closes to block any dust or harmful materials. As you breathe out, it opens to the air.
The nosepiece is adjustable to suit your needs. Experts advise you to change the filters after three days, but you can use the breather mask for a longer time.
The importance of breathability
As you adhere to CDC guidelines on face masks, remember that any face mask you wear should be breathable. “You need something efficient for removing particles, but you also need to breathe,” says Dr. Yang Wang, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
An effective breather mask will let air in and out quickly without any blockage to prevent discomfort or suffocation. This means that as you make your CDC-recommended DIY face mask (or as you look to buy a breathing mask) make sure it has these accommodations for breathability.
If you choose to use a valve, give those around you some extra space as you’re more likely to be spreading germs than without one. Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face.
In addition to being breathable, a mask can only be truly effective if worn properly. It should fit the wearer snugly from the bridge of the nose to below the chin, leaving no spaces or gaps.
Since no mask is 100% effective, we need to follow all the WHO and CDC COVID-19 control measures and strategies.
How regularly should you wear a breathable face mask?
Now that the CDC recommends that the general public wear face masks, how often should they be worn? Are there dangers associated with the prolonged wearing of a breathing face mask?
It’s less likely for the general public to prolong their use of face coverings than health workers, who work long shifts with little downtime. Still, in some cases, people are going to extremes, wearing a mask even in their own homes. This has raised issues that prolonged mask-wearing can bring about some health complications for both health workers and the general public.
First of all, if you’re not a health worker, the CDC recommends wearing a mask only if you are going out for essential shopping, visiting a public place, and/or are experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Wearing a face mask in your home or car is not necessary unless someone outside your household is there with you (for example, if you receive physical therapy at home or have to share a car).
A word on carbon dioxide inhalation
When wearing a face mask, you might find that if it’s not valved correctly, you will be breathing in some of your exhaled carbon dioxide. This could cause oxygen deficiency in your blood. If you have pre-existing respiratory diseases like asthma, strained breathing through a mask could be dangerous.
Engineers are working to make a breathable face mask that curbs the carbon dioxide-related breathing challenges posed by a regular mask. John Xu, a Stanford mechanical engineer, says that they will be making these modified N95 covers for health workers first.
“We are targeting this to anyone who has to wear a mask for the long term; first responders, doctors, nurses, and even patients who don’t want to infect others. In the near term, we hope to get these into healthcare workers as soon as possible,” John says.
Types of face masks and how they rank in breathability
There are different types of face masks, each made with different materials through different processes. So naturally, they rank differently in filtration and breathability.
An N95 respirator can filter up to 95% of airborne particles of a certain size from reaching the wearer. They fit snugly around the face leaving no gaps, which prevents leakage at the edges. They allow for high breathability as well as filtration. These masks are only meant for health workers, first responders, doctors, nurses, and COVID-19 patients. Some N95s have exhalation valves on the front, making it easier to breathe (though you’ll want to take the precautions we covered earlier to protect those around you).
2. Dust masks
Dust masks were initially designed for cleaning and construction. They have the ability to block large airborne particles that may contain viruses and bacteria (or other respiratory hazards) from reaching your mouth and nose.
The materials used to make these masks are weaker than the N95 and respirators like it, and therefore all they can offer is partial protection with their efficiency decreasing over time. They are, however, suitable for the general public.
3. Homemade masks
Medical masks are in limited supply, and therefore the CDC recommends making homemade face masks. The materials used, especially the fabric, can help improve the level of breathability and filtration efficiency.
When you use filters, make sure that they do not block air circulation. Dr. Scott Segal, Chairman of Anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, suggests a straightforward way to check if the fabric is breathable:
“Hold it up to a bright light. If light passes really easily through the fibers and you can almost see the fibers, it’s not a good fabric. If it’s a denser weave of thicker material and light doesn’t pass through it as much, that’s the material you want to use.”