It has been more than seven months since the coronavirus crisis started in the U.S., but face mask protection still remains a confusing and controversial topic. Part of this problem stems from ever-changing public health messages.
In March, U.S. health officials told the American public that masks don't block respiratory particles. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instead suggested that only sick people wear them to prevent the particles from ever becoming airborne. As research advanced, the CDC revised its directives to recommend that everybody wear fabric masks in public.
Many people are still understandably unclear on how face mask protection works and when it should be worn. So here's the experts' latest guidance on this topic.
How can I ensure my face mask protection is effective?
Raina MacIntyre is an infectious disease expert at the University of New South Wales. She says, "The more layers, the better," and recommends a minimum of three layers of fabric. Of course, any face mask protection is better than nothing. For example, if all you've got on-hand is a t-shirt, wear it! In this case, the thicker the fabric, the better.
The layer touching your face should be soft, like cotton, while the outer layer should be a moisture-wicking fabric such as polyester. MacIntyre offers an easy way to test this: "Take a piece of fabric and drop one drop of water on it and see what happens." Does the droplet soak in? Then your face mask protection fails. Does the droplet bead up? Then it passes.
Fit is also a crucial factor to consider. If you have gaps between your face and protective mask, this means it's easy to breathe in germs. And obviously, your facial protection should cover your nose at all times. When you breathe out of your nose, you could be producing and releasing droplets into the air.
Are medical masks better?
N95 masks, the fitted respirators that medical workers wear when taking care of contagious patients, are definitely better than cloth protection at filtering out viral particles. With that said, fabric masks and neck gaiters do offer some substantial protection that gets more effective with more layers or fabric thickness. Besides this, the public is urged to not buy N95 masks so there are enough for healthcare workers and high-risk individuals.
Research shows that multi-layered or thick face protection is just as good as surgical masks at blocking respiratory particles. In fact, if everyone were to wear cloth mask protection, it would significantly lower the contagious particles circulating in the air and thus the chances of more people getting sick.
When should I wear face mask protection?
COVID-19 spreads through direct contact with a sick person's droplets (think coughs and sneezes). These respiratory particles can even hang suspended in the air for minutes and even hours. Indoor environments without proper ventilation only aid to accelerate the likelihood of airborne spread. Outdoor transmission risk is much lower since viral particles dissipate faster in fresh air.
It's safest to wear face protection all day when you're outside of your home, especially when in an indoor environment such as an office or if you can't maintain a six-foot distance from others. If you're skeptical about this protocol, remember that two Missouri hair stylists infected with the coronavirus didn't pass it to any of their 140 clients thanks to proper face protection.
Even if you are not or don't feel sick, please wear face protection. "You’re actually most contagious in the days prior to showing any symptoms," explains Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University environmental sciences professor.
If you live with someone who works in a high-risk environment like a hospital or has a high risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19, wearing face protection at home isn't a bad idea, according to MacIntyre. As far as households go, it's important that you're on the same page as your housemates. If one of you doesn't wear face protection, this jeopardizes the efforts of everyone else in your home.
Should I wear face mask protection when I'm exercising?
Do you work out in an indoor environment, like a gym? it's imperative that you wear face mask protection then. If you exercise outside in an uncrowded area, then you're probably safe to go without face mask protection.
How do I wash my face mask protection?
Throw your face mask protection into the washing machine with your regular laundry and use high heat. It's best to wash your mask after each use. If this seems burdensome, consider having two or more masks on hand so you can wash them in bulk.
Our neck gaiters and other face mask protection offerings are built to last. Each one is infused with copper and silver to kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, and this antimicrobial treatment is rated to withstand at least 100 washes without losing effectiveness.
Are there any legitimate medical reasons to not wear a mask?
Besides some slight discomfort, wearing face mask protection is safe and beneficial for the overwhelming majority of people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks may exacerbate breathing problems for those suffering from severe asthma or advanced emphysema. If this is the case for you, then it's best to take measures to minimize the amount of time you have to wear a mask. For example, instead of shopping, try ordering food or supplies online.
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