Many masks are made for health-care professionals, but for the average person who is expected to wear a mask in grocery stores, offices or forms of transportation, which mask should you choose?
Dr. Sumontra Chakrabarti, division head of infectious diseases at Trillium Health Partners — Mississauga Hospital in Ontario, tells Global News that before considering a fabric type, make sure the mask actually fits your face.
“The most important thing to remember is that (the mask) is basically covering your mouth and nose,” he said, adding that it should also be comfortable on your face.
“We have to remember that what’s happening in the public is a very different risk profile than what’s happening in the hospital.”
However, he says people who have close contact with COVID-19 patients, those who have jobs as front-line workers or even those who are around elderly people or those with a compromised immune system, it makes sense to get medical-grade masks.
What you need to look for when you buy masks
Chakrabarti says buying masks starts with finding something that is layered.
“That’s going to provide the protection that you need in the public,” he said.
Dr. Lynora M. Saxinger, an associate professor at the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta, agrees. She says besides finding a mask with layers, make sure there are filtering layers.
Saxinger has been looking into masks and fabrics and says that sometimes, companies are not listing the type of textiles in their masks. She says before purchasing one, make sure you read the product details carefully.
“When you look at what the World Health Organization (WHO) would like masks to look like, it has three layers. And the layer that’s closest to your face is an absorbent layer made out of cotton.”
On June 5, the WHO released a document on masks and preventing the transmission of COVID-19. The document noted that non-medical masks, or fabric masks, can be made from a “variety of woven and non-woven fabrics, such as polypropylene.”
The WHO says these fabric masks can be made with different types of fabrics, layering sequences and shapes.
Saxinger says to also look for masks with a bendable top layer, allowing you to adjust the mask around your nose. The last thing you want is gaps around your nose or mouth. You also want enough masks.
“You want enough of them that you can change them if they get moist and wash them,” she said. “For a lot of them, it is reasonable just to wash with warm water and soap in a sink and let them dry.
Do fabrics matter?
Since fabric masks have become more popular, experts say consumers are also seeing a variety of fabric options. Some companies are selling silk masks, others are going with cotton and some are experimenting with linen.
Health Canada noted that non-medical masks should be woven and you should never wear a mask made from plastic, non-breathable materials or tissues.
Homemade masks, they add, are also not regulated like medical ones.
“These types of masks may not be effective in blocking virus particles that may be transmitted by coughing, sneezing or certain medical procedures. They do not provide complete protection from virus particles because of a potential loose fit and the materials used,” the government noted.
One April study published in American Chemical Society Nano compared different mask materials like cotton, silk, chiffon, flannel and other synthetics and their filtration capabilities.
“Cotton, the most widely used material for cloth masks, performs better at higher weave densities (i.e. thread count) and can make a significant difference in filtration efficiencies,” authors wrote.
Another study on masks, published in the journal Physics of Fluids in June, found once again that masks with gaps were not effective.
“Loosely folded face masks and bandana-style coverings provide minimal stopping-capability for the smallest aerosolized respiratory droplets,” authors wrote.
“Importantly, uncovered emulated coughs were able to travel notably farther than the currently recommended 6-ft distancing guideline.”
Chakrabarti says whatever the fabric is, make sure you’re not falling for “claims.”
He says some masks may come with a claim that suggests, “this may filter our more particles.” But this is often not based in science. Saxinger adds that more research needs to be done about the effectiveness of different fabrics.
Wearing a mask properly
Chakrabarti says when it comes down to it, wearing a mask should be continued to be paired with physical distancing and frequent handwashing. Wearing a non-medical mask shouldn’t be your only form of protection.
“There’s no good evidence that we have that everybody wearing a mask does anything over what physical distancing does,” he said.
However, experts agree masks are good for preventing the spread of the virus and for many, they’re an added layer of safety as they enter indoor spaces.
But wearing a mask safely goes beyond finding a snug one. You should avoid touching your face and repeating masks without a proper wash.
Previously speaking with Global News, Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a professor of molecular, cellular and chemical biology of microbial infections at York University in Toronto, says you should make sure you put on and take off your mask safely.
“It’s impractical … (and) if you take it off to put it on the table, but the table isn’t clean, you (can) run into contamination,” she said.
She suggests wrapping the mask in a paper towel or putting it into a plastic bag after using it.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
With files from Global News’ Meghan Collie
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.