Masks have been worn in a number of Asian countries for decades when the wearer is ill. Surgical masks are also donned in many healthcare settings. It is believed this helps to prevent transmission of a disease to others.

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become more commonplace in most countries. And in America, mask wearing has become a hot topic – in fact, the act is now political in nature. We aren’t here to debate you, but inform you on what existing science says regarding the efficacy of cloth masks!

A briefing on masks and viruses

COVID-19 is the name for the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. The disease is primarily spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Asymptomatic carriers are believed to be able to transmit the disease. Surgical masks and N95 masks have been known to halt viral transmission. 

Studies of the pandemic’s spread in China and Singapore have shown that around 50% or more of cases in the two locations researched were spread by asymptomatic carriers. 

For a while, there wasn’t much concrete evidence that cloth masks were effective at containing particles. To this day, no randomized trial on cloth mask efficacy has been conducted.

A 2015 article found that cloth masks were much less effective at preventing disease than surgical masks.

The authors of that study recommend against using cloth masks, particularly in high-risk situations, but also acknowledge that cloth masks probably offer some protection against COVID-19. Furthermore, they mention that healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients should, at a minimum, have gloves and goggles in addition to a mask.

Another study, published in 2016, concluded that cloth masks are “marginally beneficial” in filtering particulate matter when compared to N95 masks. This study also found that surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks. 

And a third article from 2010 states that fabrics commonly used in homemade masks “may provide marginal protection” from nanoparticles including virus-sized molecules.

The new research

A study published in early 2020 found that single-layered masks made of a single fabric are not consistently effective and some have a filtration efficiency as low as 5%. However, filtration efficiency increased with the number of layers of fabric a mask contained. And higher thread counts of cotton performed better. Hybrid fabrics, like cotton-silk and cotton-flannel, were more than 80% effective.

No matter the fabric, wearing any face covering reduces the spread of particles released when you cough or sneeze. The proper fit is important to ensure the face covering works as intended. Gaps not covered by a mask or bandana can decrease filtration efficiency by at least 60%. Scientists say that some type of face covering is better than none.

Even if everyone wore face coverings that were only 20% effective, the number of cases could be cut by one-third. Mandates requiring masks prevented between 230,000 and 450,000 cases from April 8 to May 15 in the United States alone. 

So while available research isn’t extensive, a general consensus among most scientists is that you should wear a mask as it probably helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. Note that it does not help you, but helps others not get the viral illness.

Make sure you always keep your nose and mouth completely covered by your face covering. Your mask or bandana should fit snugly around the nose at the very least, but ideally around the chin and sides as well. Wearing a mask improperly defeats the purpose of wearing it at all.

Do you have a cloth mask? Mine has purple, white, and yellow flowers and sparkly silver ear loops 🙂

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Diana · July 5, 2020 at 10:54 pm

Very informative regarding face coverings. Thanks for the info!

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