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Do Reusable Masks Help Protect You From COVID-19?

October 21, 2020

Across the country, wearing a face mask is mandated in places where social distancing isn't possible, like retail stores, hair salons, schools and malls. 

This is to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Though we still have much to learn about the coronavirus, misinformation about face coverings is circulating.

Some people who are opposed to mask-wearing are sporting mesh masks that "cover" their nose and mouth but still allow the kinds of droplets known to transmit the virus to pass through.

Others believe they do not need to wear a mask if they are not experiencing symptoms -- that is a myth that is not supported by leading health experts, doctors, scientists or national and international recommendations.

However, many people are wondering if they really work, what kind of mask is best, and how to keep them clean. 

The truth is there are not many studies comparing the common mask types: cloth masks, surgical masks, and N95 masks. Let’s look at some of the few studies that have tried to provide some insight below.

Different types of masks offer different levels of protection.

The evidence on any mask use, outside of surgical masks is still emerging and there appears to be some benefit. 

The exact parameters of which masks are the best and the extent to which they protect the wearer or those around them are still being figured out.


The best masks feature a tight-knit material and a filter pocket to help prevent respiratory droplets from passing through the mask. 

The most protective masks, N95 respirators, block 95% of tiny particles, including viruses.

A study from the Journal of Hospital Infection found that wearing a face covering slashed the risk of infection by 24% for a simple cotton covering and up to 99% for a professional, medical-grade filtration mask. 

Surgical masks

According to the FDA, a surgical mask is “a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment.”

N95 respirators

N95 respirators (also called “surgical N95 respirators” or “N95 masks”) filter out 95% of all particles over a certain size. 

One study that looked at N95 masks from different manufacturers found that all of the masks they studied filtered out 95% of particles 0.1 to 0.3 microns wide. 

This includes the size of droplets that carry the coronavirus.

When and how to reuse N95 masks: 

  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before and after touching the mask.
  • Check that you have a good fit and it’s properly sealed to your face each time you use it.
  • Throw it away if you notice any damage or it becomes hard to breathe through.
  • Avoid touching the inside of the mask so you don’t contaminate it.
  • When you take off your mask, put it in a container with a lid and label the container with your name so no one else uses it. If you want to label the mask itself, it’s OK to mark the straps, but don’t use a marker on the front part that is working to protect you.


Cloth Masks

Wear a cloth face covering (such as a homemade mask) when you’re in public places where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing. 

These are places where there are usually more people — for example, at pharmacies and grocery stores.

A research study showed that COVID-19 can travel up to 27 feet through the air in tiny droplets. 

That’s a lot farther than the 6 feet we’ve been told for social distancing. 

Aerosols that contain the coronavirus can be formed when someone coughs, sneezes, or simply breathes out. While it is unclear if cloth face coverings protect the person wearing them from someone who is infected, they do prevent people who have the infection from spreading it to other people.

For cloth face coverings and handmade masks, wash it with water and soap or detergent at the highest-temperature setting possible. Then dry it completely. 

To prevent transmitting the virus to others, it is safest to wear a mask any time you are around someone who is not in your household. It will help lower the risk of spreading respiratory droplets from talking, coughing and sneezing.

Wearing a mask forms a barrier that traps virus-containing droplets emitted by the wearer. In other words, if you are not wearing a mask and you breathe in the same air as an infected person who also is not wearing a mask, your risk of acquiring the coronavirus increases.

*This article is not meant to be taken as medical advice. Please follow the advice of your local health authorities when making decisions about your own health and the people around you.
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