Safety Spotlight: Choosing a Face Mask

December 31, 2020

Bandana? Disposable Surgical? Reusable Cloth? Neck Gaiter?

The face mask is an important piece of PPE (personal protective equipment) that we all have to wear right now. But with so many different types, how do you know you’ve got a good one? Here are some pointers to help you determine how effective your mask is… and help you choose a better one if you need to!

Weave, fit, layers… all of these matter. Masks must be made with a tighter weave (higher thread count) cloth to be effective. To work well, the mask needs to fit your face snugly. And masks with more layers can make for greater protection.

  1. The Disposable Surgical Mask. This mask consistently ranks well. Made of non-woven fabric, a magnifying glass reveals a solid wall of protection. With no holes to allow droplets to pass through, and a bendable metal nosepiece for a snugger fit, the disposable surgical mask is often ranked #1. This is a mask that can be made better, however; one study found that by sealing the mask to your face with a nylon band, 90% of small particles were blocked versus 50 – 75% without. Clearly, anything that makes for a better seal around your face will help.
  2. The Reusable Cloth Mask. There are many types of washable masks, made from cotton, polyester, other materials or blends. These reusable masks can be non-effective or very effective, so choose your reusable mask carefully. What to look for? A tight weave, more layers, and a snug fit. To get an idea of how tightly the cloth is woven, you can hold the mask up to a light. If light can get through the material, droplets can too.
  3. The Neck Gaiter. Tests have found that the neck gaiter is typically not very effective. Thinner materials and/or a single layer make a poor barrier. To test the quality of your neck gaiter, try blowing out a candle with it on. If the candle blows out, your neck gaiter fails the quality test!
  4. The Bandanna. The classic cotton bandana also is a poor performer. You may feel protected, but the cotton is too thin, and tests show it’s not doing much- if anything.
  5. The Vented Mask. Also not recommended. The vents have been found to do a poor job of filtering and essentially render the mask useless.

After you have found a good mask that you are comfortable in, the most important thing is- don’t forget to wear it!