Four Things You Should Know Before Purchasing a Mask

There is growing evidence that masks can help curb the spread of COVID, and many states are now mandating that they are worn in public. However, what many states and federal governments fail to do is provide clear suggestions and guidelines on what to look for when purchasing a face mask.

Is a seat belt going to prevent all deaths in car crashes? No. But are you better off wearing a seat belt than not? Yes. The same thing goes with masks. To assist with this, we’ve compiled a list of four things you should know before purchasing a mask. 

The Fabric 

The type of fabric is a big one to consider when purchasing a mask. Most homemade masks are made of materials that are breathable such as cotton. In theory, this is great because many people aren’t used to wearing a mask and feel it’s hard to breathe. However, with the thinner and more breathable fabrics comes risk.

Since fabrics such as cotton are breathable, that also means that the holes in the material are larger and allow viruses and other airborne diseases to come into the mask. A common misconception is that it’s harder to breathe through masks with smaller holes and are tightly woven. This is not the case.

Materials such as Jean are more tightly woven and harder to breathe through, but some alternatives properly filter out the bad stuff while still being easy to breathe. Unfortunately, there is not much information on the internet that is properly informing people about the different types of materials and which ones do the best job all around. 

To learn more about fabric types, this website did an incredible job at outlining the differences

Fit 

The fit is also a key component when it comes to making sure your mask is efficient. When a mask doesn’t fit properly, there’s no seal around the face, thus causing particles to enter into the mask, essentially defeating the purpose. Masks are meant to be nice and snug around the face to prevent leakage.

You will need to ensure that the mask you are purchasing has the right fit for your face shape and size. To do this, we suggest checking before purchasing or returning (if possible) if it’s too loose around your face. To learn more about the proper fit, check out this video.

It’s near impossible to know if a mask will fit you properly when purchasing since you can’t try them on, and unless you work in the medical field, you aren’t fit for them annually. To help the mask you do purchase fit tighter; you can tie the ear loops tighter, purchase expanders, or have it altered. 

Mask Types 

There are many different styles and types of masks, and each has their own uses and protection levels. To help you best understand the different types of masks, we’ve outlined a few below. 

N95

These are most commonly used by healthcare professionals. In order to work in a hospital setting, hospital employees must be fit-tested annually for this type of mask. The reason being, if the mask doesn’t fit perfectly, the mask is almost pointless.

To learn more about fit testing for N95 respirators, visit our recent article. N95s are made with special materials, and they filter out 95% of particles. To learn more about their filtration levels, we encourage you to check out this website. 

Surgical 

Surgical masks are most commonly worn in operating rooms to ensure that the patient is protected from the staff performing the procedure. If you are around someone wearing a surgical mask, they are protecting you. However, if you are wearing the mask and the person next to you isn’t, you are not being protected. This is why wearing a surgical mask is less desirable than an N95, because it requires other people to be responsible for your health. 

Cloth 

Cloth masks (most commonly homemade) are known to be the least protective due to the material types that are being used along with how many layers. These masks commonly are made with cotton (highly breathable material), thus not providing much filtration. Many websites are encouraging people who purchase cloth masks to purchase ones that have a pocket for a filter, so help provide more protection. 

Ratings 

Remember, cars with higher safety ratings after crash tests are proven to decrease the chances of death; the same goes for properly rated masks and materials that are used that are more durable.

The same goes for masks. There are rating systems for masks that are being sold to medical professionals and even to construction workers to ensure that the adequate amount of protection is being provided while they are on the job. To learn more about ratings, you can visit the chart on this page, or read more about masks in our recent blog article. 

Have you purchased a mask online? Did the description tell you what materials were used? Did it inform you of the filtration effectiveness? Most don’t. It’s up to you to be informed and make the purchase decision that best meets your needs.

Hopefully, soon these details will circle the internet, and mask providers will be required to disclose how to make sure the mask fits and what effectiveness it has. 

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About the author

Ashley Carty

Ashley Carty is a seasoned medical professional with over 8 years of experience working at the top hospitals in Southern California, including Hoag, Saddleback Memorial, and UCSD.

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