The COVID-19 pandemic totally changed the world as we know it. Restaurants closed up shop, toilet paper went missing from shelves, and face masks became the new must-have item for not only medical professionals, but also society as a whole.
So the real question is… why are we wearing face masks? Do these little cloth contraptions actually work and keep people safe? Let’s look at the research, consult a few experts, and get into why it’s a good idea to shield your mouth and nose during a pandemic.
Do Face Masks Work?
Face masks can help slow the rate in which a virus spreads, especially if they’re worn properly by a large number of people. This is backed by many respected organizations in the field of health including:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
- United States Department of Health & Human Services (HHS)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages everyone during a pandemic like COVID-19 to wear a face mask or covering “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” This would include parks, grocery stores, schools, public transportation, restaurants, and crowded downtown areas.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration is an organization that serves the community at large when it comes to health and wellness. They are constantly releasing new guidances about protective face coverings, such as which ones you should use, which ones should be left to the medical professionals, and which ones are safe for donation.
World Health Organization (WHO)
The World Health Organization implores you to wear a face mask, especially if you’re a caretaker or living alongside someone with health issues. The WHO website offers a ton of resources, ranging from how to wear a face mask to what to do if you’re caring for someone with COVID-19.
United States Department of Health & Human Services (HHS)
The HHS is a governmental department that works to protect the well-being of all Americans. They are keeping on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, so check out their website for face mask tips, mental health and coping resources, grant opportunities for your business or non-profit, and other important news.
These organizations, and many healthcare professionals around the world, all support the fact that face masks work. According to Dr. Aaron Hamilton, a medical doctor with Cleveland Clinic, you might not notice symptoms of a virus at first, but by being less than 6 feet apart, you risk passing any sickness you may have on to other people.
Social distancing is only half the battle, and the other half is making sure you keep your family and community members safe with a layer of protection. A face mask offers that extra security and could make all the difference when it comes to slowing down the spread of illnesses like COVID-19.
How Do Face Masks Work?
It might seem strange to think that a simple piece of cloth can stop germs from spreading, but science shows that face masks can actually work! They prevent spittle and spray from coming out of your mouth and landing on other people or surfaces. It’s really that simple.
Here’s how a face mask works:
This all may seem a little gross and mortifying – we’re spitting when we talk?! Even crazier, we produce thousands of germ-carrying droplets that are totally invisible to the naked eye.
The truth is, though, these droplets can easily land on other people or objects. In fact, a 2020 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus specifically can live on hard surfaces like doorknobs and desks for up to 3 days. It can also live on cardboard for up to 1 day.
That’s exactly why it’s so important for everyone to wear a face mask. These masks are a good, easy way to block spittle from leaving our mouths and landing on other surfaces or other people.
Does Everyone Need to Wear a Face Mask?
Everyone should wear a face mask, no matter if you’re healthy or sick. Viruses aren’t always easy to see, which means it’s important for you to protect other people.
According to the CDC, the following people do not have to wear face masks:
- Children under age 2.
- Anyone who has breathing trouble or respiratory issues.
- Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or can’t remove a face mask without help.
As long as you’re a living, breathing person over the age of 2, you should have a face mask on while you’re out in public. Remember to grab one before you head outside!
What Are Face Masks Made Of?
The vast majority of face masks are made from melt blown nonwoven fabric, with pure cotton being the most commonly used. According to medical professionals, cotton is a good material for face masks as it filters out the highest percentage of particles, which in turn, keeps germs at bay.
Face masks or coverings can be made from any of the following materials:
- Cotton blend
There are many different face masks out there, and each is built a bit differently. You’re probably just getting used to this idea of wearing one every day, so do your research and shop around for a style that works best for you.
What Are the Different Ply Types for Face Masks?
As mentioned, most face masks are made from melt blown nonwoven fabric. Melt blown means the fabric has gone through a machine that blows it with hot air and causes it to become tiny fibers. These fibers are then bound together into a multi-layered, or plied, structure.
The ply number on your face mask refers to the number of layers of fabric. You can find any of the following types on the market:
A 2-ply mask is your basic run-of-the-mill variety. It’s safe for you to use for a quick trip to a gas station or grocery store, but it’s not strong enough for use in medical facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, or doctor’s offices.
For the most part, 3-ply masks are the most common type of face mask. They consist of three water-repellant layers that help the mask stay dry as you breathe into it throughout the day.
A 4-ply mask is usually fitted with a carbon filter on the inside. These masks are water-resistant, lint-free, and highly breathable. They also sometimes come with an adjustable nose strip for the most comfortable fit.
KN95 masks are considered 5-ply masks. They’re designed to filter out more than 95% of particles, including irritants like smoke, pollen, or dust. They’re a favorite among both the general public and medical professionals.
Are Face Masks Legally Required?
While there isn’t a federal law in place that says face masks are legally required, each state can create their own regulations. As of May 2020, thirty-six states have made face masks mandatory to wear in public.
This map shows you which states are requiring face masks for public use:
The following states are currently requiring face masks to be worn in public:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
*DISCLAIMER: State mandates for face masks are subject to change. Be sure to stay up-to-date with the current protocols and contact your local officials if you have any questions.
During a pandemic like COVID-19, there’s no clear idea for how long we will have to wear face masks while we’re out and about. Your best bet is to continue to wear your mask while at stores, restaurants, and outdoor events into the near future.
Be sure to also keep your eyes and ears on the regulations set forth by major healthcare organizations like the CDC, and ask your doctor directly if you have any other questions.
Pro Tip: Medical-grade masks and full-blown respirators should be left for essential workers and those who really need them. These masks are in short supply, so if you don’t have any outstanding health issues, you can get by on a simple cloth mask.
Clean Your Hands With Soap & Water
Before putting the mask on your face, make sure you thoroughly wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. If you’re not close to a sink, a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content is the next best choice.
Cover Your Nose & Mouth
Make sure the mask is covering your entire nose and mouth with no gaps. It shouldn’t be so tight that you end up with a mark on your face, but it should be held firmly in place.
Avoid Touching the Mask
While your mask is on, avoid touching it at all costs. If you do have to adjust it, use disposable rubber gloves and throw them away immediately afterward.
Remove By the Elastic Loops
Take the mask off your face by removing the elastic loops around your ears. Continue to avoid touching the fabric area that comes into contact with your nose and mouth.
Throw it Away or in the Washer
Put the mask directly into a waste receptacle or in your washing machine at home, depending on if yours is disposable or reusable.
It might seem like a lot of extra effort to follow these steps, but it’s worth it in the long run. Your face mask will not do anyone much good if it’s improperly handled.
How to Take Care of Your Face Masks
Think of a face mask like any other clothing item in your closet. You want to make sure to take proper care of it so it will last you a long time and stay in good condition.
To properly care for a face mask, be sure to do the following:
Store Your Mask Properly
Fold the mask so the contaminated outside is against itself. From there, place the mask inside a clean toiletry bag or paper bag. It shouldn’t go in a Ziploc bag since there’s more risk that microbial growth (aka bacteria) will form over time in plastic.
Clean Your Mask Regularly
It might seem extreme, but you should try to wash your cloth face masks every time they’re used. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to have more than one that you rotate between. This is especially valuable since the elastic on face masks wears down every time they’re washed.
Above all, you should treat your face masks as temporary and replace them every 6 months to a year with a new one. The more often they’re exposed to the outside world, and the more they’re washed, the quicker they will break down.
Pro Tip: Face masks can irritate your skin and cause it to look red and blotchy. Keep your skin in good condition by applying a moisturizer before you wear your mask.
Can You Wash Face Masks?
Cloth face masks can be washed in the washing machine. The only exception is disposable blue surgical masks. These should be thrown away after a single use.
Keep the following tips in mind when washing your face masks:
Stick them in a mesh laundry bag – The elastic loops and straps on a face mask can easily get snagged in the washing machine. A mesh laundry bag will help prevent tangles.
Use a non-scented laundry detergent – As nice as lavender smells on your t-shirts, you don’t want to inhale that scent all day on your face masks. Use a non-scented detergent if possible.
Wash with clothes that you wore outside – You should try to wash your face masks with the clothes you wore outside of the house on the day you were wearing your mask. This reduces the risk of your mask contaminating the laundry that’s kept permanently indoors.
Dry on high setting – Dry your face masks on a tumble dry in a high setting. You can also air dry your masks by laying them flat on a surface in direct sunlight.
You can also clean your face masks by hand if you don’t have access to a washing machine! The CDC recommends using a bleach solution mixed with warm water. Make sure that the bleach isn’t past its expiration date, and rinse thoroughly with cool or room temperature water. Note: Bleach may cause colorful masks to lose their vibrant hue, so proceed with caution!
How Long Do Face Masks Last?
A basic cloth face mask is good for 1 full day before it should be washed, while a disposable face mask should be thrown away after a single use. USA Today recommends cycling through your cloth face masks and wearing a different one every day!
Always have a week’s worth of face masks ready to go! Keep them stored in paper bags and rotate through them. It might seem like a hassle, but it’s the most optimal way to keep your face masks from contaminating anything once they’re removed.
Do Face Masks Expire?
Medical-grade masks and respirators, like the N95, will have an expiration date printed on the package. Disposable masks also expire after 3 years from the date of manufacture, so be mindful if you’re using this type of mask while in public.
According to 3M, a manufacturer of medical face masks and respirators, “the longer a respirator is in storage, the less likely it is to perform at its full potential.” This is due to the fact that certain features of the mask, like the straps and nose guards, will naturally degrade over time.
You should be mindful of the expiration date on your masks and replace them when necessary. It’s not a surefire solution when it comes to stopping viruses, but it does help your mask operate at peak performance.
Can You Recycle Face Masks?
Unfortunately, you cannot recycle face masks after they’re used. The same goes for any other personal protective equipment (PPE) like disposable gloves, sneeze guards, or surgical gowns.
PPE products are considered hazardous waste. Be sure to toss your disposable mask in the trash as soon as you get home rather than just throwing it on the ground. It’s the best solution for yourself and the environment.
What Should You Look for When Buying a Face Mask?
Are you ready to shop for face masks? You want to be sure you’re picking the best one. The CDC recommends that you look for the following:
The face mask should fit snuggly on your face, but it shouldn’t be uncomfortable or overly tight. You should ultimately be able to wear it all day without a problem.
Your face mask should either have elastic ear loops or adjustable ties that secure behind your head.
It doesn’t matter if it’s 2-ply or 5-ply, your mask should be made with multiple layers of fabric.
Why should it be tough to breathe in your face mask? The CDC recommends looking for one that doesn’t restrict your oxygen levels.
As long as your face mask checks all of these boxes, you’re good to go! Style should come second to function, so don’t worry if your mask doesn’t have a designer label.
Why Are Face Masks Important?
Face masks are important because they are a selfless and easy way to do your part during the pandemic. We might not all have a medical degree, and maybe we don’t know the first thing about germs and bacteria, but we owe it to our loved ones, neighbors, the community, and ourselves to do whatever we can to help.
So yes, it might be incredibly inconvenient to remember your mask every time you run to get milk at the grocery store. And it’s maybe uncomfortable and less-than-fashionable to wear one. Still, putting on a mask is a small price to pay if it means that we’re one step closer to putting an end to a life-altering pandemic like COVID-19.
The Bottom Line
Face masks are new for almost everyone, which is why it helps to know how they work and why they matter. There’s a lot that’s up in the air right now, but this is something you can control. Wear a face mask every time you leave your house!
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