More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become an essential form of protection for us by both limiting virus particles we may potentially inhale as well as protecting others from our own exhalations (should we be infected and not know it). In some areas, these face masks have already become mandatory.
Essentially, a mask acts as a barrier. It minimizes a person’s risk of spread or exposure to the virus as it obstructs its transmission between and among individuals. Although as experts would say, masks do not eliminate the risk of catching the virus— they only mitigate that risk. Ideally, they would be combined with “social distancing” as well to further limit exposure.
Different Types of Masks
With public health officials recommending their use, masks made of different materials have popped left and right. The more common materials for masks are those made of fabrics such as the standard cotton, quilting cotton, silk, polyester, and bamboo. And there are also those highly encouraged only for the use of health professionals, the N95 and N99 masks which are considered “medical grade” PPE (personal protective equipment). For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on cloth face coverings – cotton face masks, silk face masks, polyester face masks, and exclude the PPE grade N95 and N99 masks.
Shirt Stay Plus – 3-Pack – Cotton Face Masks
Comfy Clothiers – 2-Pack – Adjustable Cotton Face Masks
Comfy Clothiers – 4 Colors Available – Silk Face Masks
ProHealthcareProducts.com – Polyester Face Masks
AccuMed – 20-Pack – N95 Face Masks
Depending on the material, all face coverings and protective masks provide varying levels of protection to the wearer, as well as to those around the wearer.
But which of these can provide protection the best?
Comfort & Fit Matter
For the general populace, when comparing the types of fabrics for masks the most important factors to consider are comfort and breathability alongside its filtration properties. After all, we wear a mask to blockade foreign particles that may carry the virus, and not have to constantly readjust the mask (which can contaminate it). Put another way, the less likely you need to adjust the mask the better it can do it’s job.
Fabric Thread Count Aids Filtering
Let’s look at the opinion of Amanda Wilson, an environmental health science doctoral candidate in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Wilson led a study on the comparison of the various materials used in masks and said “the denser the fibers of a material, the better it is at filtering. That’s why higher thread counts lead to higher efficacy.”
One material commonly considered for use in masks is standard cotton. It is made of natural fibers and is soft, breathable, and hypoallergenic, which is why it is used mostly in clothing. It is also comparatively inexpensive than other types of fabric.
Quilting cotton, on the other hand, is one that is more tightly woven which makes it stiffer than standard cotton and is not as soft. Because the weave in quilting cotton is tighter, it makes for a more effective filtration than standard cotton that has a relatively lower thread count and looser weave.
Another type of fabric that has been getting attention for its prominent quality is silk. It is made of natural fiber and is known for its shine, softness, and durability. Although thin, silk is a tightly woven fabric but still very breathable. The most noted characteristic of silk as it is used in masks is its electrostatic property which helps trap smaller particles.
Polyester fabric, another type of fabric that is widely used, is a synthetic fabric made from polyester fibers. It is inexpensive as it is cheaper to produce. Although lightweight and durable, it is non-absorbent, thus repelling water. Unlike natural fabrics, this type of fabric is less breathable and may cause irritation to those with extremely sensitive skin. Its also possible that the thread count (and thus filtration) may be lacking, depending on the specific polyester fabric being used.
Another type of fabric, bamboo viscose (Rayon), is derived from the bamboo plant. It has a silk-like feel although inexpensive. It is commonly used in undergarments due to its breathability, softness, and durability. Bamboo is also lightweight which makes it suitable for use in warm weather. Although there have not been any major studies to prove the effectiveness of bamboo fabric’s filtration properties, it can still be a good alternative to other types of fabric for its good qualities.
Do Multiple Layers Help?
Although each type of fabric has a certain level of filtration, not one fabric sewn into a mask can do the job better than those medical-grade ones. This is the reason why experts have suggested adding multiple layers in cloth masks, with the rationale being that more layers mean more filtration. Masks made of multiple layers of cotton, or a combination of cotton and silk, are a few of those suggestions.
Multiple layers of fabric help improve the filtration effectiveness of almost any material type. This is why most quality masks made from a common fabric contain at least two if not three layers. Many cloth masks also include an insert pouch where an additional filter can be placed. For this reason, it’s hard to simply say that one material is better than another as other factors like fit, number of layers, etc. all also matter.
But alas, if we consider all other factors equal – fit, number of layers, etc. and just consider the fabric itself, then generally speaking our favorites are quilter’s cotton and silk face masks. Both generally have tight thread counts and thus can do a decent job filtering (for a cloth face covering), and then with silk the electrostatic properties may also help with virus mitigation.
No mask is fully capable of protecting the wearer from the virus. In fact, nothing can fully protect anyone from the virus. What is important now though is diminishing its spread when you cannot stop it. And fighting against something we cannot see, we can, at the very least, try to subdue its aggressiveness by safeguarding ourselves against possible threats. Let us be proactive in the fight against coronavirus. Make an effort to keep an appropriate social distance and limit the number of close contacts and duration of exposure you have. Even an N99 mask is less effective than simply not being exposed at all! So distance should be your primary aim and then use a mask and encourage others to do the same any time you cannot keep a safe distance. When in doubt, get your mask on!