In this article, we’ll discuss why surgical masks work better than cloth ones, why the CDC still recommends cloth masks anyway, and how parents can tell which type of mask to use for their family.
While cloth masks are much more fashionable and have gotten you through the past year, as winter approaches it’s time for an upgrade. While cloth masks are environmentally friendly, experts say disposable masks, like surgical masks and KN95, are more effective. In addition to the US, public health officials in European countries like France, Germany, and Austria are urging people to wear medical or surgical masks instead of homemade cloth masks.
This may come as a surprise to some because during the early stages of the pandemic we were urged to wear cloth masks. This was mainly to reserve the highest-quality masks for healthcare professionals. But now plenty of high-quality masks are available and ready to be worn.
An August study done by researchers at Yale and Stanford found that surgical masks are 95% effective at filtering out virus particles. Cloth masks are just 37% effective. That held true even after the surgical masks were washed with soap and water 10 times, though the CDC and the FDA both say you shouldn’t reuse disposable surgical masks under any circumstances. The point here is to illustrative their durability compared to cloth masks.
But it isn’t as simple as throwing out your cloth masks and replacing them with stockpiles of disposables. Here are the biggest differences between the two, and when you should use each type.
Evidence supports that surgical masks work better than cloth. When they fit properly, cloth masks do a decent job removing most droplets that come from talking, breathing, coughing, or sneezing. But, you’ll be significantly more protected by wearing a higher-quality disposable mask. Your strongest option is the KN95 mask, which is commonly made in China and filters up to 95% of particles in the air. If you can’t find KN95s, the next best are surgical masks made from a non-woven plastic material called polypropylene. This material can hold an electric charge, which can attract, intercept and remove foreign particles that might otherwise slip through the cracks of a cloth mask.
Another good thing about surgical masks is that they are fairly inexpensive, making them affordable to have a stockpile of them. If you don’t know where to get them, there are lots of options on Amazon and some come in packs of 50 or 100 masks for under $15. Another positive aspect of surgical masks is that their quality is relatively consistent. The quality of cloth masks can vary, according to Dr. Judith O’Donnell, section chief of Infectious Diseases at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends cloth masks. As you may have noticed, we haven’t mentioned the N95 masks. Dr. Lynn Goldman, from George Washington University, tells CNBC that N95 masks provide high-quality protection. But these masks need to be reserved for medical facilities and people with a very high risk of Covid exposure.
This is why at the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC recommended cloth masks over all types of medical-grade ones. Today, the CDC maintains that well-fitting cloth masks can still effectively prevent the spread of Covid, though it also recommends surgical masks and KN95s as safe options.
As mentioned earlier, the top strength of cloth masks is also the biggest weakness of surgical masks and KN95s: sustainability. Dr. Goldman says that cloth masks have “far more durability over time,” while disposable ones need to be thrown away as soon as they become dirty. How can you tell which type of mask you and your family should use?
In crowded areas where maintaining social distance for a long time isn’t possible, like traveling, sitting in a classroom, or theater, wear at least a surgical mask. Dr. Goldman says she wears KN95 masks while traveling. But in situations where you won’t be close to anyone else for more than a brief interaction, like going to the supermarket or dropping off a child at school, a cloth mask is fine.
Another important thing to check is how your mask fits, regardless of which mask type you choose. The CDC says that how well a mask fits, how well it filters the air, and how many layers it has are all important to consider when choosing which mask to wear. Look for something that has a metal bridge to mold over your nose, lies flat across your cheeks, and covers your nose down to your chin without gaps along the sides.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 6). Improve the fit and filtration of your mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/mask-fit-and-filtration.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 13). Your guide to masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html.
Abaluck, J., & Kwong, L. H. et al.(2021, August 31). The impact of community masking on COVID-19: A cluster-randomized trial in Bangladesh: NCRC. 2019 Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium (NCRC). Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://ncrc.jhsph.edu/research/the-impact-of-community-masking-on-covid-19-a-cluster-randomized-trial-in-bangladesh/.