Here’s What You Need to Know About Buying a Face Mask

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Since the CDC started recommending that everyone wear cloth face coverings when out in public at locations where they can’t social distance, like grocery stores, those who can’t or don’t want to sew their own masks have been looking to buy them. And many manufacturers have stepped up, offering cloth face masks for sale to the public, often with proceeds going to COVID-19-related causes. 

But how do you know whether the face mask you buy offers optimal protection for yourself and others? It’s a good question because not all face masks or mask materials are equally effective. Some cloth face masks can block as much as 79 percent of small particles, while some block hardly any at all. Here’s what you need to know before you buy a cloth face mask.

Tightly Woven Fabrics Are Best

The CDC’s guidelines on face masks came at a time when masks of all kinds had become scarce, so many people scrambled to find a face covering at all. The internet was flooded with tutorials for how to make a no-sew mask out of a bandana or even out of a sock. But, by early April, researchers at Wake Forest University had released findings that suggest that the type of material a face mask is made from makes a big difference in its efficacy.

According to them, the tighter the weave on the fabric, the more effective it is at filtering out virus particles. That makes sense, because loose-weave and knit fabrics have much larger holes between the individual threads, or yarns. Wake Forest researchers recommended using a tightly woven fabric, like batik or quilter’s cotton with a thread count of at least 180. Other studies have found that masks made from tea towels, canvas, and high-thread-count sheets are as effective as surgical masks at protecting against respiratory viruses.

However, before you start cutting up your old T-shirts (or socks), it’s important to note that researchers have found that woven fabrics offer the most protection against the virus. Knit fabrics, like T-shirts and socks, aren’t tightly woven enough and can let virus particles and even droplets through. They tend to become less effective when stretched over the face, because it separates the stitches in the weave, creating larger gaps between the threads. 

Breathability Is Essential

To be sure, while some mask materials are more effective than others, something is better than nothing when it comes to wearing a face mask to protect against COVID-19. If you’re going to wear a mask, it should be one that you’re comfortable wearing and can breathe in, so you’re able to keep wearing it without taking it off. Researchers recommend 100 percent cotton fabric for breathability, and it’s not hard to find 100 percent cotton washable face masks for sale. The mask should be soft, so it doesn’t irritate your face, and the ties or ear loops should be comfortable, as well.

Multiple Layers Offer More Protection

Quilted cotton masks or masks with two or three layers of thick, high-thread-count cotton offer the best protection but may be hot or difficult to breathe through. An effective mask should, however, have at least two layers of fabric. A mask made with two layers of thin cotton fabric, a layer of cotton and flannel, or a layer of cotton and silk should provide an optimum balance between protection, breathability, and comfort. 

Many masks are also designed with a filter pocket. If you’re going to add a filter to your mask, make sure it’s fiberglass-free — many household filters, like vacuum and furnace filters from manufacturer 3M, contain fiberglass that could harm your lungs if inhaled. Fiberglass-free HEPA filters offer the most protection, but make sure the filter material is sandwiched between two layers of cloth so that you don’t breathe in any fibers from the filter material. Single-use household paper products, like tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, and coffee filters, can also be used to provide filtration in masks. Throw these filters away after use.

A Snug Fit Improves Filtration

Air, like water, follows the path of least resistance, so you need a mask that will fit snugly around your face to keep air from leaking in and out around the sides of the fabric. A mask that doesn’t fit snugly won’t protect you or others nearly as well as a mask that does. Look for a mask with a wire piece that can be pinched to conform the mask around the bridge of your nose. Masks with ties are easier to fit snugly around your head, but masks with ear loops can also fit snugly and are better for some outings, like hair appointments. There should be no gaps or holes anywhere around the edge of the mask, and if you wear glasses or sunglasses, they should not be fogging up when you breathe. 

If everyone wore a mask, COVID-19 infection rates would drop drastically, according to some experts, which may be why the CDC released recommendations for everyone to wear cloth face coverings last month. If you’re going to wear a mask, you should take care to wear the most effective cloth face covering you can find — for your own sake, and the public good.


Sasha Duncan is a bookworm, fashion enthusiast and a consultant for Palmaira, a supplier of the best Menorca sandals Australia has to offer. She loves reading crime novels and being with her dogs, Maya and Buster.

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