Welcome to the third chapter in our special series on why everyone should be wearing coronavirus face mask protection. Are face masks really necessary during this pandemic? Spoiler alert: Yes, they absolutely are!
In the first entry of this series, we explored how many people around the world are wearing face masks, and how COVID-19 spreads through aerosol droplets. Want to catch up? Check out this article here. In our second chapter, we examined how face masks stop coronavirus transmission. In case you missed this one too, you can find it here.
For this final post of our series, we'll show you what makes a face mask function well. We'll also take a look at the big picture — how face masks make a difference in humanity's fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Let's get started!
Good Fabric + Multiple Layers = Great Face Mask
Since demand for N95 respirators and surgical masks is sky-high, several people have opted to make their own face masks or buy one from a reputable brand. But what actually makes a face mask effective?
Several do-it-yourself mask makers employ cotton fabric for their starting material. Some even include a pocket for an air filter. The simplest iteration we've seen of this is someone adding coffee filters between two bandanas. If you're looking for a version of this that's a little more sophisticated, we completely understand. Check out our face masks — many are 2-ply, all are made from 100% interlock polyester, and some even have air filter pockets for extra safety.
When constructing different types of face masks, Yang Wang, an environmental engineer at Missouri S&T, found that fabrics with higher thread counts tend to work better. With that said, things like cotton bandanas and wool scarves didn't work well at all. But a 600-thread-count pillowcase folded over four times was capable of blocking 60% of particles. So, what worked best in Wang's experiments? It turns out that masks that used allergy-reducing air conditioning filters or vacuum cleaner bags performed the best; they were even almost equatable to an N95 respirator!
Northeastern University environmental chemist Loretta Fernandez and engineer Amy Mueller also explored the efficacy of various homemade masks. Their conclusion? The most effective face masks had multiple fabric layers.
On the other side of the equation, researchers investigating t-shirts wrapped up over a wearer's nose and mouth found that it blocked less than half of the aerosols it came in contact with. It must be noted that doubling or tripling the cotton t-shirt's layers dramatically improved its blocking ability — something that could be useful to know in an emergency. Another study also found that one single sock pressed flat against the nose and mouth would also serve well as an emergency substitute.
Obviously, layers are important. But what type of fabric should you look for in a face mask? Cotton flannel, quilting cotton, and silk all performed particularly well in blocking ultrafine particles. And numerous studies have concluded that polyester is a prime choice for face mask protection. Shameless spoiler: We use polyester in all of our face masks and neck gaiters!
How Face Masks Make a Difference in This Pandemic
Now that you know why fabric type and layering are essential for good face mask protection, let's now examine the big picture: Why are face masks necessary for humanity's fight with the coronavirus?
Simply put, wearing face masks in public can help drive infection rates down. Such a measure is especially essential as different parts of the world emerge from lockdown and begin mingling again. Masks significantly reduce the spread of other viral infections like influenza, something crucial to consider as we enter flu season during our battle with COVID-19. Besides this, they also help to decrease the dispersal of viruses onto nearby surfaces when people speak, cough, or sneeze.
If enough people started wearing face masks out in public, it would dramatically impede how quickly the coronavirus starts to spread again. Taking other actions, such as frequent handwashing and consistent social distancing, would compound this effect. The impact that these measures could have is far-reaching.
To put this in perspective, a study from Arizona State University found that if 80% of people donned only semi-effective masks, this would cut down the number of deaths in New York by 17-45% over the course of two months. If that's not enough to convince you, consider this: After Germany made face mask-wearing in public compulsory, cumulative COVID-19 cases dropped by 2.3-13% in a matter of days. Researchers of this study estimated that face mask usage could reduce the infection growth rate by approximately 40%.
Studies from the University of Cambridge support these findings. One, in particular, showed that consistent face mask-wearing in public by 50% or more of a population could even bring down the infection rate to less than one! Basically, the more people who adopt masks, and the earlier they do it, have a huge effect on flattening the coronavirus curve. This applies whether you're wearing surgical masks, neck gaiters, or homemade masks.
As Renata Retkute, an epidemiologist involved in the University of Cambridge study, puts it, "We have little to lose from the widespread adoption of facemasks, but the gains could be significant."
Face masks may not always be comfortable. And they may make it harder to communicate with people we're talking to. But all of this is a rather small price to pay for keeping our loved ones safe and healthy. Wouldn't you agree?
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