Are cloth masks effective against Covid? Surgical masks vs KN95 explained

Your trusty fabric masks have got you through more than a year of the pandemic. As winter approaches, you might want an upgrade.

That’s because some disposable masks – like surgical masks and KN95 masks – simply work better, experts say. And many of them are available now, a turnaround from the start of the pandemic when the highest quality masks were to be reserved for medical professionals.

In an August study, currently under peer review, a group of researchers from universities including Yale and Stanford found that surgical masks are 95% effective at filtering out viral particles, compared to just 37 % for fabric masks.

This was true even after surgical masks were washed with soap and water 10 times, although the CDC and FDA both say you shouldn’t reuse disposable surgical masks under any circumstances.

Public health officials in European countries like France, Germany and Austria are currently urging people to wear medical or surgical masks instead of homemade fabric masks – but it’s not as simple as throw away your cloth masks and buy a replacement stock of disposables.

Here are the biggest differences and when to use one type of mask versus the other:

Why surgical masks work better than cloth masks

Assuming they fit properly, cloth masks can do a decent job of removing most of the droplets people generate while talking, breathing, coughing or sneezing, says Yang Wang, an assistant professor at the University. of Missouri Science and Technology who runs the Particle Measurement & Technology Laboratory.

But, says Wang, you’ll be much more protected by wearing a higher-caliber disposable mask. Your strongest option is the KN95 mask, which is typically made in China and filters up to 95% of particles in the air.

If you can’t find KN95, go for surgical masks made from a non-woven plastic material called polypropylene. The material is able to hold an electrical charge, which can attract, intercept, and remove foreign particles that might otherwise slip through cracks in a cloth mask, Wang explains.

Surgical masks and KN95s are relatively inexpensive, so you can probably afford to stock them: A quick search on Amazon for “surgical masks” shows several 50-pack options ranging from $ 8 to $ 12.

And their quality is relatively constant, “while fabric masks can be quite variable,” says Dr. Judith O’Donnell, section chief of infectious diseases at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center and professor of infectious diseases at the Perelman School of Medicine. at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why the CDC Still Recommends Sheet Masks Anyway

You may notice that the above list does not include N95 masks. They also offer high-quality protection, but should always be reserved for medical facilities and people at very high risk of exposure to Covid, says Dr Lynn Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George University. Washington, and a trained epidemiologist.

That’s why, at the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended sheet masks over all types of medical grade masks. That recommendation remains in place today: The CDC maintains that properly fitting sheet masks can still effectively prevent the spread of Covid.

And many Americans have grown accustomed to their two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric over the past year and a half. Cloth masks are comfortable, affordable, reusable, and sometimes even fashionable.

Their maximum strength is also the biggest weakness of surgical masks and KN95s, Goldman says: Sheet masks have “much more durability over time,” while disposable masks should be discarded as soon as they become dirty.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published in July estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic will ultimately produce up to 7,200 tonnes of medical waste, mostly from disposable masks.

How to know which type of mask to use

In crowded situations where you can’t maintain social distancing for long periods of time, like traveling on an airplane or sitting in a classroom or theater, you should definitely go for at least one surgical mask.

Goldman says she wears KN95 masks when traveling. “Even though I’m vaccinated, I feel like I want to do everything possible to avoid getting infected,” she says.

In situations where you won’t be around anyone else for more than a brief moment or two, like going to the supermarket or dropping a child off at school, a cloth mask is probably fine, Goldman says.

You should also pay attention to the fit of your masks, whichever one you choose. “A well-fitting fabric mask might be better or equivalent to an ill-fitting surgical mask,” says O’Donnell.

Look for something that has a metal bridge to mold your nose, that sits flat on your cheeks, and covers your nose up to your chin with no gaps along the sides.

In the future, surgical masks could become the norm: the CDC could possibly update its masking guidelines to recommend them specifically, Goldman says. The CDC did not immediately respond to CNBC’s Make It request for comment.

“I hope they will do it in such a simple, clear and concise manner,” Goldman says.

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