N95 face masks are being reserved for medical professionals and first responders. So what should regular people wear?
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have gone from viewing face masks as a quirky feature of big-city life in Asia to feeling almost naked without one when we step inside a grocery store.
Numerous Chicago suburbs have mandated that face masks be worn in certain public settings. And beginning May 1, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered all people in Illinois “to wear a face-covering or a mask when in a public place where they can’t maintain a six-foot social distance.” That will last at least until May 31.
The federal government now advises Americans to wear cloth masks in public, especially in areas with significant community-based transmission.
Scientists say the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will likely stick around indefinitely.
So with people possibly donning masks all summer and possibly into 2021, here’s what you need to know:
The different types of face masks
- N95 masks: These disposable masks are fitted tightly to the face, with a metal bridge over the nose and bands that stretch around the head. They block 95% of particles of 0.3 microns or larger — but they’re not for most of us. These are the masks you see medical professionals wearing, often under their clear plastic face shields.
- Medical or surgical masks: Also used by medical personnel but now being used by the general public, too, these disposable masks filter about 60% to 80% of particles. They consist of a rectangular, paper-like covering held across the face with stretchy loops over the ears.
- Cloth masks: These can range from snug, double-layered, tightly-woven cloth masks with elastic ear loops (the best) to a bandana draped across your face (not as good).
Why wear a mask?
A mask helps keep droplets from your mouth or nose from getting on others. And a mask — even a good cloth mask — might help prevent virus particles from reaching your airway.
It’s thought that 25% or more of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means you or anyone you encounter could be silently shedding virus particles, says Margaret Gardel, a physics professor at the University of Chicago who is studying face masks as part of N95Decon.org, a multi-university consortium.
“This is the real reason we want the general public to be wearing masks,” she says.
But a mask is not magical. You still need to keep up social distancing, avoid touching your face and wash your hands frequently to protect yourself from the coronavirus.
Where can I get one?
N95 masks are being produced solely for medical providers and first-responders. So, unless you already have one at home, you won’t be able to get one.
If you do have an N95, you could use it for errands, with two caveats:
- Use it only once a week to help ensure that any virus particles die off.
- Understand that it’s a disposable mask that, after about five uses, will no longer seal as designed.
As for medical masks, it will be several months before we see wider availability, says Nezih Altay, a DePaul University professor and expert on supply chains. “Demand is way too high right now. And supply is not even close.”
Cloth masks are available online for around $7 and up from retailers or do-it-yourselfers.
This summer, expect to see face mask fashion take off. Community groups have been offering free cloth masks to people who need them.
You can make your own cloth mask, either a sew or no-sew version, using instructions from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How should it fit?
A medical or cloth mask covers the face from the bridge of the nose, over the mouth and under the chin. It’s held in place by loops around the ears. Never drop one side to talk, as that defeats the purpose of the mask.
Unlike an N95 mask, which fits tightly around the nose and mouth, a medical or cloth mask will have gaps near the ears. Still, either type offers better protection than a bandana, which tends to gap right under the mouth, says Jill Crittenden, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s on the N95 consortium.
How should I clean a cloth mask?
Cloth masks should be washed daily in soapy water and run through a dryer on low heat or hung to dry.
Disposable medical masks should sit for a week before being used again. Crittenden says she has seven medical masks labeled “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday” and so forth, which she rotates from week to week.