Weighing the Options for Masking Up

The kinds of masks that keep out microparticles and best keep wearers safe are also hard to come by right now and should be reserved for healthcare workers. But research has shown that any mask is better than no mask—especially when it comes to keeping your own (possibly virus-inclusive) cooties from reaching others: If 80% of people wore a mask in public, infections would drop by almost 90%.

So what’s the best answer among the homemade and commercially available masks? Here’s the lowdown on face-covering:

  • Surgical masks are disposable and made from breathable fabric. They don’t fit snugly to your face and don’t meet the filtration standards of the now-famous N95 respirator, which is the gold standard for healthcare workers. These kinds of masks are comfortable, and they cut your risk of transmitting infection. They also are probably a little better than cloth masks at filtering the air you inhale (although estimates on that aspect vary widely). If you’re working with the public, a surgical mask is a better choice than a cloth mask, but for the rest of us…
  • Cloth masks are a good option for shorter trips out in public or outings where you encounter few people. They’re more likely to gap around the nose and mouth, meaning they can be super-leaky. Even so, they’re catching a lot of what you’re breathing out, and you can wash and use them again. If you’re the crafty sort, this pattern produces a mask with good coverage and space for a filter, so you can double up on protection with a plain old paper towel or coffee filter. The good news is that most common household fabrics will do the trick—especially if you double them up. A two-layer mask made from t-shirt fabric was found to block 98% of droplets. It’s pretty comfy and breathable, too.
  • Plastic face shields are reusable and can be quickly cleaned with soap and water or disinfectants. You can more easily communicate with them, saving you from exposure when you pull down a cloth face mask. They might hold heat in a way that gets a little uncomfortable, and there hasn’t yet been a ton of research about their efficacy, although early studies look promising.

The bottom line? Get your hands on a mask (or a sock) before you go out into the world. It doesn’t have to be the best, most effective mask. Think of it like exercise: You don’t have to participate in an Ironman to benefit from a little bit of getting the ol’ heartrate up. Something sure beats nothing—and you’ll be protecting the folks around you.