Health: Uncovering The Truth About Face Masks

By: Alan Pollock

Various masks include (clockwise from upper left) a disposable multi-ply mask, a cotton two-ply fabric mask, and a KN95 dist mask. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Since the start of the pandemic, and even today, there’s been conflicting information about which face masks are best to use. Some advocate high-filtration N95 masks, while others swear by cotton masks or gaiters. And last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci advocated doubling up on masks for additional protection. The only thing that’s not in dispute is that wearing face coverings remains absolutely essential in the fight against COVID-19.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control provides a user-friendly guide to choosing, wearing and handling masks; visit www.cdc.gov and search for “your guide to masks.” The best masks have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric, and completely cover the wearer’s nose and mouth. They also fit snugly against the sides of the wearer’s face. Gaiters are an alternative, though they should be folded to allow at least two layers of fabric over the nose and mouth. Disposable surgical masks are another viable option, but they can be pricey and wasteful.

The purpose of face coverings is simple: to prevent respiratory droplets that might contain the virus from reaching a person’s nose and mouth, or from leaving them. Public health officials agree that masks are a must whenever you’re out in public, even outdoors, but particularly when indoors with people who aren’t part of your household.

Masks with a bendable nose strip help keep air from escaping near the eyes, which is particularly helpful for preventing foggy eyeglasses. But for any mask to work well, it must make a good seal against the skin, which means they’ll be less effective for people with facial hair. To test the seal, apply the mask and bend the nose strip in place, then forcefully exhale. If you feel air rushing around the edges, the seal is imperfect.

In addition to making sure masks fit snugly, wearers have to use caution donning and doffing them, using hand sanitizer before and after handling them. Used masks should only be handled by the ear loops, and should be folded in half with the outside in until they are washed or disposed of, according to CDC guidance.

Concerns about the new, more transmissible variants of COVID-19 have prompted people to take another look at face coverings. N95 masks, or similar KN95 masks, have multiple layers designed to filter out 95 percent of certain airborne contaminants. While they provide better protection than an ordinary cloth mask, the CDC still recommends that N95s be reserved for health care providers. They can be readily purchased online, though they are expensive.

Is one mask enough? Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says that two masks might be better.

Speaking on NBC’s Today program, he said it makes “common sense” that doubling the filtration would improve protection. A number of those at the recent Biden inauguration were shown wearing double masks, typically with a surgical mask covered by a cloth mask. The arrangement not only provides more layers, but also helps cover gaps around the edges of the mask. Strictly speaking, the CDC does not recommend double-masking, but said cloth masks should be tightly woven and must have two or more layers.

Is it possible to have too many layers? Yes. If masks are too thick, they restrict breathing, making them uncomfortable to wear. When that happens, users tend to pull them down under their noses or mouths, eliminating all protection. If you have the urge to continually adjust your mask, it’s a sign that it doesn’t fit properly. Try not to touch a mask once it’s on your face, and remember to use hand sanitizer after removing it.