COLUMBIA, S.C. — There are many choices when it comes to face coverings, but not all are created equal. For containing respiratory droplets and slowing the spread of COVID-19, health officials say disposable surgical masks or cotton reusable masks are the best choices.
"A disposable, surgical mask is probably the ultimate mask that you could wear, besides an N95 mask," says Dr. Anna Kathryn Burch, an infection prevention physician at Prisma Health. "That being said, they're very expensive and they technically shouldn’t be reused. So, that leaves a regular fabric mask. I think they’re fine to use as well. The best part about a fabric mask is you can wash them."
Dr. Burch says people should make sure their fabric masks are made from a tightly woven material like cotton. It will keep particles from your nose and mouth from escaping.
"Whatever mask we choose to wear, the most important part is to make sure we’re wearing it appropriately." Dr. Burch says. "I can’t tell you how many times I see people out in public who are wearing the mask underneath their nose or halfway off the nose. That does nothing for anyone."
A recent study by Duke University found that neck gaiters – fabric tubes people wear around their necks and faces – are among the least effective for containing respiratory droplets.
"The gaiters are more of a fleece material, so it does have to do with the actual material itself," Burch explains. "The tighter the weave of the material such as cotton, it’s going to work better than a fleece material."
Burch also says to stay away from masks with valves or vents because particles can get through them. Also, face shields help, but aren't very effective on their own.
"When you’re wearing a face shield, you can stop particles from going straight ahead, but they also escape from underneath. So, it’s better than nothing but it’s not nearly as good as wearing a mask," Burch says.
Lastly, N95 masks are the best at protecting people from outside particles and keep their respiratory droplets from escaping, but only if they're fitted and worn properly. That's why N95s are mostly for people in the medical field.
"You actually have to put the mask on and wear this contraption around your head and the nurse will spray some smelling spray and you have to see if you can smell it or not." Burch says. "It has to seal perfectly around your face. So, an average person just wearing an N95, who doesn’t have that seal, that’s not going to be the correct mask for you to wear."
Dr. Burch says wearing the right mask and staying socially distant are proven ways to fight the coronavirus.