We're not there yet: refresher on face masks and protection

At the start of 2020, before the coronavirus started spreading across the world like wildfire, many Australians had never given face masks a thought. Today, almost everyone has one.

As face masks became the new normal, different types of masks, including home-made cloth masks, surgical masks and cone-style masks were commonplace. But it can still be challenging to determine the right mask for adequate protection.

We’ve created this article to answer some of the most common questions about face masks and face protection. With all the fake news and incorrect information spreading around, we aim to separate fact from myth. 

1. How do masks prevent the spread of COVID-19?
A University of California San Francisco expert says: “An experiment using high-speed video found that hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometres were generated when saying a simple phrase, but nearly all of these droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth.”

The masks’ effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID-19 is based on their ability to stop the droplets produced when we breathe, speak, sneeze or cough from evaporating into the atmosphere and spreading further. If they are left to spread, more people will be infected.

2. What are the benefits of wearing a face mask?
Writing for the non-profit organisation AARP.org, which empowers people to choose how they live as they age, Rachel Nania says: “The primary way the coronavirus spreads is from person to person by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.” She adds, “Face masks, however, can block these droplets.”

AARP identifies other benefits of wearing face masks:

  • transmission risk reduction, so fewer people will become ill
  • ensuring that even those who do not yet know they are infected can protect others
  • helping the economy to recover because face masks reduce the need for lockdowns
  • lowering the economic costs of hospitalisation.

3. What types of face masks are there?
Even though masks can be divided into many sub-categories, there are generally three types of masks in the market:

  • Cloth face masks: Are reusable, thick, densely woven cotton that protect the wearer and those around. These masks are often used in a public setting, such as grocery stores and public transport. Cloth masks prevent large droplets from spreading and stop the exhalation of fine droplets known as aerosols that mostly spread through talking.
  • Surgical masks: Are disposable loose-fitting masks designed for medical use to prevent large droplets of bodily fluids that may be infected.
  • Respirators: Otherwise known as N95 masks, protect against small particles suspended in the air. These types of masks are often used in healthcare settings. 

4. Do cloth masks offer adequate protection?
According to health services provider Mayoclinic.org, cloth masks have proven to offer adequate protection by creating a barrier that stops the spread of infected droplets through coughs, sneezes, or talking. “Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus when they are widely used by people in public settings,” says a Mayo Clinic spokesperson.

5. How should I properly wear a mask during COVID-19?
Even though several studies support the effectiveness of masks in lowering the spread of the coronavirus, this effect depends on how properly the mask is used.

Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, a doctor, writing for Hopkinsmedicine.org, offers these tips on wearing a mask:

  • Clean your hands with soap and water before and after touching the face mask.
  • Touch only the bands at the edge when putting the mask on.
  • Ensure the mask covers your nose, mouth, and chin properly.
  • Make sure you can still breathe and talk conveniently after putting on the mask.

6. When should face masks be worn?
A face mask should be worn in all places where the risk of coronavirus transmission is high or as advised by state or federal governments. This includes all indoor and outdoor public places where you are likely to be in proximity with people from outside your household. Face masks become even more critical in areas where maintaining social distancing is next to impossible.

7. How should I clean non-disposable face masks?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that you should “wash your cloth mask whenever it gets dirty, or at least daily. If you have a disposable face mask, throw it away after wearing it once.”

The mask can be included with your regular laundry or hand washed. It’s vital to ensure that your face mask is completely dry before you wear it because the CDC says that a wet mask is hard to breathe through, and it is also not as effective as a dry one.

8. How can I spot counterfeit medical masks?
If you intend to buy a medical mask, ensure it is the original product.

The CDC lists some factors you should look out for when you want to determine whether a medical mask is authentic or counterfeit:

  • absence of approval (TC) number
  • false claims indicating approval for use by children
  • mask has ear loops instead of headbands for filtering facepiece respirator
  • the filtering facepiece respirator has no markings at all
  • unnecessary decorations.

9. How is the effectiveness of a face mask tested?
The efficacy of face masks are based on several tests. They include:

  • Breathing resistance: Refers to how hard the mask makes it for the wearer to breathe. An effective mask is one that allows the person wearing it to breathe with ease.
  • Particle filtration efficiency: Measures how effective a mask is at keeping particles on either side. This denotes the proportion of particles that are permitted by the mask to move through its membrane. 
  • Splash resistance: Test how effective the mask is at preventing droplets moving at high speed from going through to the other side.
  • Flammability: Evaluates how easily a flame would spread if the mask caught fire. This is an essential measure because a material that quickly spreads a flame is likely to cause more severe injury within a short period.
  • Bacteria filtration efficiency: Tests how effective the mask is with regards to filtering microorganisms. 

At home, one of the most effective methods of testing how effective your face mask is likely to be is through the light a match test. To do this test, light a match and then try to blow it out while wearing a mask. If the mask is useful, you will not blow out the flame or even move it.

10. What other types of protection can work with masks?
Fighting the coronavirus is a multi-pronged approach. Therefore, it is vital that masks be accompanied by other measures, such as washing hands with soap and water or using a hand sanitiser.

While the face mask primarily protects the nose and mouth, you can also shield the eyes by using eyewear to prevent flying aerosols from spreading. It’s also important to avoid touching your face when you are in public areas because you may have touched a contaminated surface. 

11. Should one wear a face shield together with a mask?
Health experts have emphasised the need to wear a mask even when a face shield is already used. This measure is necessary because a shield cannot absorb droplets as a mask would. The opening at the bottom allows germs to escape into the air, which can infect others.

12. Who may find it difficult to wear a mask?
People with mental health issues such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical trauma may find wearing masks terrifying, resulting in sensory overload, anxiety or panic attacks. For individuals with hearing impairment, wearing a mask may make it impossible to read lips.

13. Does wearing a mask increase the CO2 levels in the air we breathe?
Masks have been worn by healthcare providers and people in other professions for years without issues. According to the CDC, the particles of CO2 are small enough to pass through any face or cloth coverings, unlike the virus that causes COVID-19, which is much larger than the CO2 particles and cannot easily pass through a cloth mask.

14. How can I make my face mask?
The CDC provides a guide for making a simple face mask with no sewing necessary. All you need are breathable fabric, the size of a handkerchief or bandana, and an elastic band. The steps to follow are to:

  • fold the fabric in half
  • fold the top down to the centre and fold the bottom up to the centre
  • place the elastic bands about six inches (15cm) apart, with the same distance from the vertical centre
  • fold the sides to the middle
  • wear the mask with the folded part towards your mouth.

To make other types where sewing is necessary, find a detailed step-by-step guide here.

15. How many people need to wear masks to reduce community transmission?
Researchers have established the need for at least 80 per cent of the population to wear masks for adequate community protection. They predict that 80 per cent of the population wearing a mask would have a more positive effect than a compulsory lockdown.

A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that deaths can be significantly reduced if most of the population wear masks.

Are you still diligent about wearing a face mask even though attention has turned to vaccinations?

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