The global shortage of medical-grade face masks has left healthcare workers in a vulnerable position. To ease the demand, the CDC is now urging the general public to turn to cloth face masks and other medical face mask alternatives so that heavy-duty protection can be available for the medical community.
What are the alternatives for medical-grade face masks?
One of the most practical alternatives to medical-grade masks are reusable cloth masks. These are typically made from cotton but can also be made from other materials like silk. You can buy reusable cloth masks from a variety of different online stores or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can make your own at home. Some patterns are more elaborate than others, and you can make them from spare pieces of cloth, t-shirts, headbands, socks, or even underwear.
It’s important to bear in mind that cloth masks are not as effective as medical-grade respirators. They are, however, good enough for use by the general public as long as you’re still observing the six-feet rule of social distancing (the majority of expelled viral droplets travel about two to three feet) and maintaining good hygiene. By wearing a medical face mask alternative you could avoid inhaling viral particles that are still present in the air.
Effectiveness of medical face mask alternatives for virus protection
The effectiveness of face mask alternatives for virus protection depends on the following factors:
The type of material
Different types of material offer different levels of filtration. Cotton is the most widely used material in reusable cloth masks. Masks made from tightly woven cotton filter particles through mechanical filtration, acting like a sieve that blocks large particles.
Silk, chiffon, and flannel filter particles through electrostatic filtration. The material lets the threads and viral particles bind to each other, thereby preventing their penetration. A study evaluating the filtration efficiency of these different materials found that a hybrid of these materials provided the greatest filtration. This could be due to the combined effect of mechanical and electrostatic-based filtration.
The thread count of the material
The higher the thread count of the material, the greater filtration it offers. A study comparing the filtration efficiency for cotton with a different number of thread counts found that the cotton made of 600 threads per inch had a greater filtration efficiency as compared to the one made of 80 threads per inch. That’s why it’s important to choose a fabric that has a tighter weave with smaller holes, but remember that you want to make sure you can breathe through it too.
The number of layers
The CDC recommends cloth masks have at least two layers to be effective. Additional layers may help add more protection, but again, it’s about balancing protection and breathability. Coffee filters and paper towels can be used to increase filtration and are materials that are easily accessible.
The facial fit of the mask
The mask should properly fit the face to be effective. Even if the mask has a high filtration efficiency, if it does not properly fit the face, contaminants may still leak through the top, bottom, or sides of the mask.
Alternatives to cloth masks
What if you’re waiting for your cloth mask order to come in, or you’re still deciding where to buy it? There are other face coverings you can use in a pinch so that you don’t have to go bare-faced into your community.
Though they are not a long-term solution, bandanas can be combined with strict social distancing to give some protection against coronavirus. Look for a fabric with a tight weave and look for ways to keep it secured against your face as much as possible.
These are coverings for the entire face area, save the eyes and sometimes over the top of the head. However, they may not be well received in certain establishments, as they cover more of the face than is really necessary.
Socks, headbands, t-shirts, etc.
Household items can be repurposed as temporary face coverings, as well, if they are made from an appropriate material and fitted properly over the nose and mouth.
The CDC recommends that homemade or store-bought face masks should include the following to be effective:
- The mask should fit the face snugly but comfortably.
- It should completely cover the nose and mouth of the wearer.
- It should be secured with ties or ear loops.
- It should be made of two layers or more of fabric.
- The wearer should be able to breathe comfortably.
- The shape of the mask should not be damaged or changed after being washed and dried.
Wearing a mask while socially distancing
It is important to practice other protective strategies, even when wearing face masks. Wearing face masks can only be effective if it is combined with frequent hand washing.
As you may or may not know, the coronavirus can stay on different environmental surfaces for up to six days, so hand washing is key in eliminating viral particles you may have picked up from any contaminated surface. Social distancing is also vital because limiting face-to-face contact with others will slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Once you are done with your cloth mask or other alternative, remove it from the ear section without touching the outside or the inside of the part that covered your nose and mouth. If you intend to dispose of it, do so immediately. If you want to reuse it, wash it with soap or laundry detergent and warm water, then dry it in the sun or in your clothes dryer.