This is what a fabric face mask should look like to be more effective

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  • As Covid-19 spreads, the need for masks in public spaces is increasing
  • Fabric masks are recommended for those in a non-medical setting, but their effectiveness has been questioned
  • Researchers share their guidelines for blocking respiratory droplets

As Covid-19 numbers are increasing around the world, many nations have made the use of face masks mandatory in public spaces.

And while the use of face masks is recommended around the world, and the World Health Organization has updated its guidelines on the use of face masks, there are still no standard regulations for fabric face masks for non-medical use.

However, a new study from Florida Atlantic, published in the journal Physical of Fluids, investigated different types of fabrics and constructions to see what works best for face masks.

Blocking droplets key

As we now know, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 is largely spread via respiratory droplets that are ejected through the mouth and nose via coughing, sneezing, or even talking and breathing. It is estimated that a large number of those who carry the virus can be asymptomatic with no indication that they may be infectious.

A mask is therefore not only important to protect yourself, but potentially protecting others, should you be an asymptomatic carrier. To determine what works best to block these respiratory droplets, the researchers experimented with different types of fabrics and designs.

According to lead author Siddhartha Verma, there has been little information on the effectiveness of widely-available cloth-based face coverings.

The researchers used qualitative visualisations to study the fluid mechanics of simulated coughs and sneezes.

"Our hope is that the visualisations presented in the paper will help convey the rationale behind the recommendations for physical distancing and using face masks,” Verma stated in a news release.

What did the research find?

According to the researchers, loosely folded face masks and bandana-style face coverings didn’t do much to stop the smallest aerolised respiratory droplets.

Well-fitted masks consisting of multiple layers of quilted fabric, as well as cone-style masks, offered significantly more protection against respiratory drops. While it’s still possible that some respiratory droplets will escape, it was a much better option than loose-fitting single-layered masks.

Single-layered masks can also get saturated with moisture after a long period of use, which can influence their filtration capability. A multi-layered mask made from absorbent material will not only be more comfortable as it protects the face from excess moisture, but its filtration capability will be better.

Masks will never be 100% safe

It’s vital to note, that while masks are mandatory, they need to be combined with physical distancing measures and stringent hand hygiene to offer good protection.

Verma stated that more research is needed to fully understand the way these droplets behave in airflow.

"It is also important to understand that face coverings are not 100% effective in blocking respiratory pathogens," he said. "This is why it is imperative that we use a combination of physical distancing, face coverings, hand-washing and other recommendations from healthcare officials until an effective vaccine is released."

Choose the best mask for you

As masks are vital, it’s important to invest in the right fit and type. They don’t have to be expensive but take the design into account before you purchase. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Masks with elastic ear loops can be more comfortable and easier to use. But if you think that you may be allergic to latex or other compounds in the elastics that fit around the ears, choose a mask that you can tie at the back of your head.
  • Choose the most natural, absorbent fabric you can afford to avoid potential skin problems from excess moisture.
  • Ensure that the mask fits snugly, but comfortably to avoid tugging, pulling and touching your face.
  • Don’t reuse your mask, as it may harbour bacteria and moisture. Ensure that you have at least a couple of masks on rotation, and wash your mask after every use.
  • Choose a durable fabric and check your mask after each wash to see if there is wear and tear.
  • Ensure that the mask covers your chin and your entire nose, up to the bridge of the nose – not only the tip of the nose.
  • Always wash your hands before and after putting on and taking off your mask.

READ | Masks and Covid-19: How, when and why – the latest guidelines

READ | Masks and your skin: What you should know

READ | Running with a mask: What you should know and choosing the right one

Image credit: Vera Davidova from Unsplash 

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