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Not all masks are created equal: Cloth offers little protection against coronavirus

Brands are pivoting to make cloth masks, but if they don’t have HEPA filters inside them, they can’t keep virus particles out of your mouth.

Not all masks are created equal: Cloth offers little protection against coronavirus
[Source Image: Mananya Kaewthawee/iStock]

There’s a global shortage of face masks, which is forcing medical professionals to enter scenarios where they are at high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus without the proper protective gear. The private sector is stepping up to fill the gap. But as amateur sewers and apparel companies create new masks, it’s important to note that not all masks are created equal.

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The gold standard is the N95 respirator mask, which has a tight seal and filters out at least 95% of airborne particles. These are complex to make, given the large number of specialized parts they contain. In noncrisis times, these masks are designed to be worn once and then discarded, although as the coronavirus overwhelms hospitals, doctors and nurses are being forced to reuse them repeatedly.

Over the past week, many brands across many sectors have announced that they’re shifting production to manufacture masks, including large companies like Hanes, Eddie Bauer, and Gap Inc., and smaller brands, like designer Christian Siriano, apron brand Hedley & Bennett, and mattress brand Avocado. Some of these brands, like Eddie Bauer and Gap Inc. are making N95s. But the majority of the masks currently being made aren’t considered medical grade, although some have pockets that HEPA filters can be inserted into. The New York Times reported that some doctors are wearing cloth masks over single-use N95 masks to make the latter last longer.

A 2015 study in the British Medical Journal found that when worn on their own, cloth masks were only a slight improvement for healthcare workers than no mask at all. Cloth masks allowed 97% of airborne particles to penetrate into the wearer’s mouth and nose. By comparison, surgical masks allow 44% of particles to penetrate, while N95 masks allow just 5%. In the study, healthcare workers who used cloth masks had a significantly higher risk of infection than their counterparts who used masks with better filtration. 

But what about the rest of us who are looking for protection in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak? While cloth masks can prevent you from inhaling airborne droplets, they block just 3% of particles, which is only marginally better than wearing nothing at all. Although if you think you might be sick, or want to exercise an abundance of caution, a cloth face mask may prevent you from spreading droplets onto other people. But these masks shouldn’t lull you into a false sense of security.

If you’re looking for a better alternative to a cloth face mask, you should find a mask that includes a space to insert a HEPA filter, such as the one designed by Hedley & Bennett. But whatever you do, don’t buy an N95 mask in the midst of the current global shortage. Those masks should go to the healthcare workers on the front lines who are putting themselves at risk by serving COVID-19 patients.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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