What Are the Best Disposable Face Masks?

  • Connexions
  • Tue, 15 Dec 2020 14:57:50 GMT
  • 913

           While not as sustainable as reusable cloth masks, disposable masks are good to have on hand if you’re in a pinch or if you just want a quick supply of ready-to-go options. But are they as effective in protecting you and those around you from the coronavirus? And how can you tell if some options are better than others? With COVID cases increasing across the country and a second wave approaching, we set out to find the answers to these questions along with the best disposable masks available.

        The best disposable masks, of course, are N95 masks — the gold-standard pandemic masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles. But the CDC recommends that the public not buy N95 masks, to ensure there’s a supply for health-care workers. There are also disposable surgical masks worn by doctors and other health-care professionals that are cleared by the FDA to meet certain standards, but they’re not available to the general public, so they’re off the table, too. What is available are nonmedical masks.

          One of the more popular disposable options is the imported KN95 mask, considered the Chinese-made equivalent to the N95. Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University who co-authored a study on the efficiency of various mask materials, says that, while the certification processes for KN95 and N95 masks are “nearly identical,” many of the KN95 masks on the market today are counterfeit. There’s no way for you to tell an authentic mask from a fake, but fortunately Cui and his lab have found that even counterfeit KN95 masks can have a filtration efficiency of 75 to 80 percent. (Cui’s company, 4C Air, sells a KN95 mask that his research has shown can filter 95 percent of small particles.)

         Most of the rest of what you’ll see are pleated disposable masks. Florida Atlantic University engineering professor Siddhartha Verma, lead author of a recent study on the efficiency of different mask materials, says the quality of these masks varies. But the most important thing to remember during this crisis is that any mask is better than no mask when it comes to protecting yourself and those around you. “There’s even been a good amount of recent data indicating that masks are effective for protecting the wearer,” says Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a family-medicine specialist in New York City. “For people who did contract COVID while wearing a mask, the viral load that they were exposed to was much less. And so while they did become infected, in certain cases, their symptoms were much less because we know that viral load is tied to the severity of the disease.”  

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    What are the best disposable masks for adults?

Even the best masks can fail if there are gaps around the edges where potential viral droplets can enter or escape. “Look for a mask that fits your face well, assuring that it covers your nose and mouth and fits below your chin,” says Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. If you end up buying a pack of disposable masks that are too big, don’t worry: De-Lin says you can tie knots in the ear loops or twist them once before putting them on to ensure a tighter fit. (If you’re no good at knots, there are lots of straps and accessories you can buy online to adjust the fit.)

We asked Kullar, De-Lin, and Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health, to weigh in on which disposable masks are the best and why. Based on their advice, we ordered a handful to test on our own, subjecting them to the light test, where we hold the mask up to the sun or a bright lamp to see how much light passes through. (This was suggested to us by Kullar and earlier this year by Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health.) We also tried to blow out a candle while wearing them, a test that first became popular when Bill Nye used it on TikTok and which was explained more fully by NPR. Basically, if you can easily blow the flame out, it may be a sign that your mask isn’t blocking enough of your breath (and whatever germs are in it).

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