Some Masks Are Worse than Nothing

We really appreciate that so many people are working so hard to fight against COVID-19. There are the people in hospitals — from the medical staff to the cleaners — who are working to help patients. There are public health advocates who are working to keep us informed. There are researchers who are studying the disease. There are all the essential workers who are keeping the country running so that many people who are at high risk can stay home!

The new research helps us make choices about what seems right for us. It also can force us to change our behavior. That can be incredibly irritating, especially for those of us who have been very diligent about following the advice and are taking COVID-19 seriously. New research has come out about the best types of masks, and two were found to be not only ineffective but worse than not wearing a mask.

Fleece neck gaiters and bandanas are something many people had prior to COVID-19 hitting the scene. Both turn larger droplets from a sneeze or cough into much smaller particles and do not catch them. Those tiny particles can remain airborne longer and pose a larger threat than had the person not been wearing a mask to begin with! While bandanas are slightly more effective than fleece, they’re only a marginally better option. Runners are fond of the neck gaiters, and many people have bandanas in the closet. Unfortunately, they should go back into the closet according to the researchers, as they are doing more harm than good when it comes to COVID-19.

Additionally, knitted masks offer no protection. While they may be a cute craft, you should not be wearing them. Single-layer cotton masks were almost as bad.

Any mask with a valve is not going to protect the people around you. They immediately release the air you breathe, which defeats the purpose of wearing a mask. It does not protect any of the people around you. There are N95 masks with valves that might lull you into thinking they are safe. But, the researchers say that while they are safe for you, they endanger anyone near you.

According to the research, the more layers of material you have in a mask, the safer they become. The WHO says a mask should have three layers: an inner layer to absorb your breath, a middle layer to filter air and an outer layer to block the virus from getting in. If possible, the outer layer should be something nonabsorbent, like polyester.

The second-best type of mask in the study was a standard surgical mask. The white and blue masks were almost impossible to find at the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic. Now, you can get them everywhere, they are even on Amazon, with Prime shipping. After the panic buying died down, hospitals were able to get their supply chains back in order and get what they needed again. Then things became more available to the public.

We want to counsel all people, everyone to be wearing a simple surgical mask when you’re out and about,” said Dr. Anthony Cardillo, a Los Angeles-based ER specialist. “If you can’t get your hands on one, if you have to wear a mask, cotton mask three-ply is [good enough].”

The very best option is a surgical N95. However, they are in short supply. They should be reserved for health professionals who are in contact with people who are ill. Doctors have been asking people to avoid them. Not because they don’t work, but because they are needed in hospitals where doctors cannot socially distance themselves from patients.

So, throw your gaiters, bandanas and knitted masks in the closet and reach for your cotton and surgical masks. We are still learning more and still heading outside as safely as we can!  

August 12, 2020
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