There were times when wearing a facial mask meant that you were either a doctor, nurse, construction worker or a burglar on a job. Nowadays, it looks like the streets are filled with medical professionals mixing with gangsters. Sure, due to Covid we got used to wearing masks on a daily basis, yet there is still some confusion of what types of masks are good for. Let’s clear it up.
Masquerade around masks
Firstly, it must be stressed that wearing a mask really does help fighting the coronavirus despite initial mixed statements from various authorities. Even WHO at first stood against wearing them by healthy people claiming that they give a false sense of security and therefore encourage reckless behaviour such as ignorance of social distancing. Yet in June 2020, the organization changed its stance asserting that new scientific evidence shows that face masks can really help curb the virus especially when they are worn by the majority of the population. Today, you could hardly find a respectable scientific institution that wouldn’t recommend facial masks. Switzerland included.
How do mask work
The thing is that it’s not only about a sufficient protection for the wearer but also about the others around us, providing the majority of people with Covid seem to be asymptomatic. Even though the coronavirus itself is app. 0,006 – 0,14 microns in diameter, it doesn’t just fly in the air but rather sticks to other particles such as droplets of aerosol that we spread when coughing or talking. And these particles are usually at least 0,5 micron big, so masks able to catch particles 0,3 micron wide should do ok. Yet, not all of them can do that and we must also take into account how tightly they stick to the face. Generally speaking, we can quite easily divide masks into 3 categories: respirators, surgical masks and cloth masks. It’s also important to examine the level of protection they offer both to the person wearing them and the people around.
All respirators are made of layers of fibre that should catch particles 0.3 micron wide. However, they differ in construction determining how much of such particles can enter or leave the respirator around the edges or through the vent. The EU divides respirators according to their minimal effectivity as FFP1 (78% effectivity), FFP2 (92%) and FFP3 (98%). Then you can commonly see respirators marked N95, which derives from US categorization. These should be on the same level as FFP2. While the FF2 and FFP3 respirators provide pretty good protection both for the wearer and the people around, there is one big exemption. Some of these come with a vent outlet that makes it easier to breath out. The problem is that such an air is unfiltered and therefore can carry the virus. That’s probably why the Federal Office for Public Health (FOPH) recommends them only for medical staff and not for private use.
Sometimes also called medical masks, they primarily provide protection for the others. These masks differ greatly in efficacy partly because the testing hasn’t been standardized here. It’s thus hard to specify the amount of particles they can catch. Nevertheless, two American studies suggest that medical masks can protect the wearer similarly as respirators. And even though further verification may disprove such results, the truth is that if we all wore these masks, we could together significantly reduce the transmission of coronavirus. Then it makes sense that the FOPH strongly recommends wearing those if you have symptoms of a respiratory disease.
Cloth or so called textile masks offer the biggest variety of all. There are industrially produced textile masks and there are ones people make at home. They are made from various fabrics and sometimes they allow you to put an extra filter in them. These masks protect mainly the others from you but laboratory tests showed that some homemade masks rivalled the filtration of medical masks. According to the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force the good ones should have at least 70% efficiency in filtering particles 1 micron and above in size. And while the Task Force doesn’t specify the best material for masks, some experts recommend a light test – hold the cloth up to a bright light and if the light passes easily through it, that’s not the material you want to use. Generally speaking, the cloth masks work in the same manner as surgical masks. The more people wear them, the greater the protection for all of us.
Use both the mask and your head
It should be also noted that masks require common sense too. Wearing one doesn’t mean you can ignore other recommendations such as social distancing. In the same way wearing a helmet on the slope doesn’t justify reckless skiing. If you buy a mask, follow the instructions that come with it. Use it only the specified time and always make sure it fits the best it can. And as far as a cloth mask is considered, the Task Force recommends not using it more than twice a day (for example commuting to and from work) and then washing it at 60ºC.