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The New Normal: Which Face Mask Should I Use?

Keys? Check. Wallet? Check. Mask? Check!

What was once an item primarily used for outdoor maintenance and medical practices, face masks have become an essential accessory to everyday life. While there has been some controversy as to what circumstances they should be used and what kind is the most effective, there is one thing that is for certain: this is our new reality.

We know the basics:

  • wash your hands
  • avoid large crowds
  • keep within a 6-foot distance from others
  • apply protective face wear

While the first few steps are somewhat basic and easy to follow, many people want specifics as to the effectiveness of each type of mask. With news regarding public standards changing and escalating by the minute, keeping informed and following protocol can turn into a strenuous task.

So how are masks able to prevent the spread of viruses?

To answer this question we must first understand, based on information provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), how the novel virus spreads. Per their findings, the virus is likely to be spread from person-to-person contact.

Here are other ways it is thought to be spread based on research so far:

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. (Click here for more information)

With the provided information above, we are able to grasp the significance of the particles that escape people’s mouths every day. Because of the ever-evolving data many cities are requiring civilians to have facial protection when going out in public. This is especially emphasized for high-density spots such as grocery stores, offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and more.

N95, KN95, medical, surgical, disposable, reusable... what do they all mean?!

Again, it seems you cannot escape this verbiage from any news outlet, commercial, advertisement, and other media. What is important to understand is each type of mask provides aid in prevention. While there are many resources with great information on each type of mask mentioned above, here is a breakdown of the most common.

Perhaps the most popular mask is the medical/surgical disposable mask (the kind that is rectangular and contains three or four filter layers). Disposable masks contain very fine fibers and are able to filter out large particles in the air. They also protect persons from contact with droplets, sprays and splashes.

Technically a type of respirator, an N95 mask offers more protection than a surgical mask due to its ability to filter out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales. As the name implies, the mask is intended to block 95% of extremely small particles. Same as surgical (disposable) masks, they are intended to be disposable. Health care providers must be trained and pass a fit test to confirm a proper seal before using an N95 respirator in the workplace.

While surgical and N95 masks are in short supply and have been reserved for health care providers, cloth masks are easy to find and can be washed and reused. These reusable masks can be made from common materials,
such as sheets made of tightly woven cotton. What is great about these masks is their small carbon footprint and the ability to personalize it with your selection of fabric! (Mayo Clinic, 2020)

Please keep this information from the CDC in mind:

  • Don't put masks on anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious or otherwise unable to remove the mask without help.
  • Don't put masks on children under 2 years of age.
  • Don't use face masks as a substitute for social distancing.

The choice of mask is up to the individual. For many people who are following social distancing measures, a common reusable cloth mask may suit their habits. Someone who is required to travel or go in and out of offices and facilities may consider using a medical disposable mask or an N95 variation to ensure proper filtration. While this leaves people with the freedom of choosing what they feel they need, there is not much definitiveness as of current statistics.

Although you are protecting others by wearing a mask, there is promising evidence from a recent study suggesting those wearing masks and remaining at least 3-feet apart from others were less likely to breathe in infectious particles!

Understanding the process of how the virus spreads helps us understand what our goal is in preventing ourselves and others from gaining exposure. While this is a very unsettling time for all, taking into account the importance of facial protection, on top of other standard practices, will help everyone do their part in prevention and source control. With the unknown of how long these measures will have to take place, making and wearing masks may provide many with the self-assurance needed in moving forward with “the new normal.”