Everything you need to know about face masks | COVID-19 Special


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Face coverings, N95 masks and surgical masks: Who they’re for and how to use them

The CDC now says that all people should wear nonmedical face coverings when interactive with other during the coronavirus pandemic. But how do those differ from medical-grade face masks?

Face masks have become a hotly debated topic in the time of the coronaviruspandemic. Fears over developing COVID-19, the respiratory illness the virus causes, led people to hoard masks earlier this year, leading to significant shortages for medical workers. Major health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO, have urged people up to only use masks if they are ill, so as not to spread the virus to others, or if you are a health care provider.

That wisdom still stands, but the CDC released new guidelines on April 3 recommending everyone in the US wear nonmedical face coverings outside the home. This recommendation is voluntary and does not replace current social distancing and hygiene measures. Prior to the CDC’s announcement, New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and the state of Colorado advised residents to use face coverings when leaving the house.

Confused yet? Let’s break down what each of these kinds of protective measures mean. There are two kinds of protective gear being talked about here: medical-grade masks and nonmedical face coverings.

Medical-grade masks include disposable surgical face masks and N95 respirators. Surgical face masks are used to block large particles and respiratory droplets (which are sent into the air when someone coughs or sneezes) from entering or exiting your mouth. Tight-fitting N95 respirator masks are designed to filter smoke, small particles and airborne viruses. 

Nonmedical face coverings include reusable cloth masks, bandanas and scarves, and are used in the same way as a surgical mask, to protect you against large particles and respiratory droplets. However, this kind of protective covering must be cleaned between uses and is generally not used in a medical setting.

Here’s what you need to know about how each of these masks and face coverings protect you.

Surgical face mask vs. face covering vs. N95 respirator



Surgical mask

If you’ve ever been to the dentist, surgical face masks will look familiar — health care professionals use them to prevent the splashing of fluids into their mouths. They’re loose-fitting and allow airborne particles in. People commonly wear face masks in East Asian countries to protect themselves from smog and respiratory diseases, but these masks aren’t designed to block tiny particles from the air. 

Again, a surgical face mask’s main purpose is to keep out the liquid of an infected person’s sneeze or cough from entering your mouth or nose (gross, I know). Wearing one can protect you from getting sick if you’re in close contact with someone who is ill and could also help prevent you from spreading your illness to someone else, so it’s common practice for medical professionals to wear them around sick patients. 



Face coverings 

Face coverings are meant to protect you in the same way that disposable surgical masks do, by blocking large particles and respiratory droplets. The CDC does not provide specific examples of what should be used as a face covering, but government health officials in the San Francisco Bay Area recommend using bandanas, fabric masks and neck gaiters. 

According to the California Department of Public Health, face coverings should cover the nose and mouth and can be made from a variety of fabrics, including cotton, silk or linen. You can opt to buy a premade cloth mask, or fashion one from householditems like scarfs, T-shirts, sweatshirts or towels. 

These face coverings should be washed in hot water and dried on high heat in a dryer between uses to kill any bacteria or viruses that get on them. The CDC does say to be sure to wash your hands before and after handling your face covering because it may have harmful viruses or bacteria on its surface. You also should not touch your face or face covering while wearing it out in public.

Both disposable and reusable face masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth viral transmissions, because you can’t directly touch your own mouth while wearing one. Viruses, however, can be transmitted through your nose or eyes and virologists saythat surgical face masks cannot block airborne viruses from entering your body. 



N95 respirators

That’s where a respirator, a tight-fitting protective device worn around the face, comes in. When people say “respirator,” they’re usually referring to the N95 respirator, which gets its name from the fact that it blocks at least 95% of tiny particles, including viruses. Several brands manufacture N95 respirators, and they come in all different sizes. These are the masks people are most strongly requested to save for medical professionals, so it’s recommended that everyone not go out and buy them.

However, the CDC still recommends you use a medical-grade face mask if you are sick and need to leave your home to get medical care.

Do masks and face coverings actually prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus? 

The answer to this is technically yes, but the exact effect is difficult to define — especially on a large scale. Studies have shown that N95 masks are highly effective in preventing viral illnesses, but only in people who actually wear the masks correctly, which is rare.  

N95 masks are difficult to put on for people who aren’t medical professionals. If you’ve put the mask on right, it gets hot and stuffy, so a lot of people take it off before it can do any good. In fact, some medical professionals believe these masks actually create a more suitable environment for viruses to develop

Another study showed that respiratory masks are helpful in preventing viral infections, but only when combined with frequent hand washing. Dr. Michael Hall, a CDC vaccine provider, told CNET that while N95 respirators are the most protective, surgical masks can help protect you from other people’s coughs and sneezes.

While face coverings do not filter out particles in the same way an N95 mask does, they are now recommended as an effective way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, especially among people who have the virus, but are asymptomatic and still going out in public to get food or supplies. The CDC says:

The coronavirus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

Bear in mind that nonmedical face coverings are only effective against spreading the virus if you continue to take social distancing measures and basic hygiene seriously. If you do follow wear face coverings outside, don’t let it serve as a false sense of security.

The bottom line? If worn correctly and combined with other virus prevention methods, surgical face masks, N95 respirators and face coverings can help lower the risk of spreading viruses, including the novel coronavirus. But medical-grade protection should be reserved for medical professionals or those who are actively sick and need to leave the house to get medical care. The rest of us should just cover up with a bandana or cloth mask.

Do NOT use a facemask meant for a healthcare worker. You can buy the right type of mask here.

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