Masks and Face Coverings - Do they really help?

Navigating the options - Common sense approach to determining which mask is best for a given situation.


My background is in Research and Healthcare Supply Chain Management. I spent over 30 years managing operations for one of the largest healthcare organizations in the country. This afforded me the unique opportunity to research and evaluate many of the products used in the hospital. While this is not an all inclusive list I will attempt to cover the most common options.

When choosing a mask you must keep in mind there are many different types. Each one serves a specific purpose. You must also consider your personal health and work environment. What is good for a healthy individual working in an office may not be suitable for someone in an industrial setting. 

I would also encourage you to do your own research. There are differing opinions on whether a mask actually helps or not. 

(Even Professionals within organizations like the CDC and WHO disagree almost daily)

The reality is the answer varies depending on the situation. I do believe that a mask CAN help in select situations but it is NOT a one size fits all answer to the Covid19 virus. In fact using a mask incorrectly or selecting the wrong kind of mask can do more harm than good. 

Keep in mind that many of those making recommendations in the news often have a vested interest.

  • Grant funding for research
  • Selling Masks
  • Political Fodder
  • Power

As an example, the CDC currently recommends individuals use a cloth mask. Not because it is the best alternative but because the N-95 respirator is considered a critical supply and should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders. 

What are the differences between the N-95 respirator, Surgical and cloth masks.

The N-95 respirator is a protective device designed to create a close facial fit. When used correctly it is an efficient mask for filtering airborne particles and liquid contamination (droplets). The respirator style filters particles from the air breathed in so it can be an effective safeguard for you. Some models include exhalation valves. These should NOT be used when sterile conditions are needed. They do not filter air you breathe out so they are less effective in safeguarding others. Some N-95 respirators are manufactured for use in construction and industrial settings where workers are exposed to dust and small particles. Others are intended for use in a health care setting. More specifically, it is a protective device used to protect against the transfer of microorganisms, body fluids, and particulate material. 

A surgical mask is a protective device primarily intended for use in a sterile environment. It is a loose-fitting, disposable mask that creates a barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer. Not all surgical masks are made the same. They come in varying thicknesses and vary in their ability to protect you from contact with liquids. If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs, keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others. They are not intended to filter very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs or sneezes. They  also fail to provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the mask and face.

Lastly, the cloth face covering. They come is just about every shape, color and style imaginable. Some are single ply others have two or three layers. In my opinion, the best cloth face covering is a multilayer design with a pouch that allows you to insert a filter between the layers. The filter material can be made from a folded coffee filter or a section cut from a residential AC filter. This design increases the mask's ability to protect against droplets and contaminants reaching your nose or mouth. 

Now for the bad news. (Or as I like to say The Good, The Bad and the Ugly)

None of these offer a guarantee. As I said earlier, using the wrong mask or using a mask incorrectly can be worse than not wearing a mask at all. I will attempt to outline some of the more common issues below.

N-95 respirators are considered "single-use," disposable devices. If your respirator is damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should remove the respirator, discard it properly, and replace it with a new one. If you continue to use the same N-95 mask it can become contaminated and put you at greater risk.

N-95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Because a proper fit cannot be achieved on children and people with facial hair, the N95 respirator may not provide full protection.

People with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult should check with their health care provider before using an N-95 respirator because the N-95 respirator can make it more difficult for the wearer to breathe. As I noted earlier, some models have exhalation valves that can make breathing out easier and help reduce heat build-up. 

OSHA has said chemicals and damp masks can trap infectious particles. 

Wearing cloth face coverings can also exacerbate a hazard. For example, cloth face coverings could become contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment, causing workers to inhale the chemicals that collect on the face covering. Over the duration of a work shift, cloth face coverings might also become damp (from workers breathing) or collect infectious material from the work environment (e.g., droplets of other peoples' infectious respiratory secretions).

Masks should not be shared or reused. Even within the same household.

The number one issue I see is mask education. We have thousands of untrained, unsupervised people masking and unmasking all day, in single or multi-layer cloth masks made of all types of breathable or less-breathable fabrics. 

(Because we have all been told we need to wear a mask)

They may not change masks frequently or throw out their used masks. Most probably don't know they need to wash their cloth mask after each wear using bleach in the wash cycle. Many will spray disinfectant on their face covering between washes and will spend the day breathing noxious chemicals.

Many don't understand that the CDC protocol still demands 6 feet or more distance even while wearing face coverings. Just this week I saw several of our elderly hugging each other because they were both wearing masks. They thought they were protected. 

The CDC also continues to recommend everyday preventive actions, such as hand washing and maintaining at least 6 feet of social distancing, to help prevent the spread of respiratory disease. Even if you are wearing a mask! 

It is important to recognize that the optimal way to prevent airborne transmission is to use a combination of interventions from across the hierarchy of controls, not just masks alone. 

A sneeze or cough travels an average distance of 6 feet. They can however reach distances up to 12 feet. If you maintain a safe distance a mask offers minimal benefit. If you must be within the safe radius then wearing a mask can offer benefits for you and others around you. At a minimum, it will help prevent droplets from a sneeze from reaching you or those around you. 

Of course the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus. 

I am not a proponent of mandatory mask orders. While they can offer benefits in select situations they are far from perfect. I recommend using a mask if you are at greater risk or will be in a compromising situation. Just be sure to dispose of the used mask or sanitize your cloth mask as recommended. At the end of the day no one can protect you better than you!

Whatever you do be nice! 

We should never assume that everyone can use a mask for even 20 minutes in Walmart.  Their personal physician is the only one who can evaluate their personal health and advise them on the best course. Always treat them with understanding. 

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