As the economy begins to open and people interact with others in public more often, the use of masks becomes more important than ever. There are three types of masks with varying levels of protection worn by people. These masks are the N-95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth masks. Out of these masks, the one that offers the most protection is the N-95 respirator. This mask is usually circular in shape and uses elastic bands to fit tightly on the face. The N-95 respirator is in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare workers because of the scarcity and the increased effectiveness compared to other masks. N-95 respirators must pass filtration standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The NIOSH requires certified N-95 respirators to filter 95 percent of particles that are 100 to 300 nm (nanometers), and this requirement is significant because it is estimated that particles spreading Covid-19 are 125 nm in diameter. For this mask to maintain this standard of protection the wearer must also create a seal on their face.
Another effective mask available is the surgical mask. These masks are often blue, rectangular, and made of a breathable synthetic fiber. Although masks such as these are often seen being worn by healthcare professionals, they have no obligation to meet any NIOSH standards and cannot form a seal on a person’s face. Because of this, the purpose of surgical masks in this pandemic is to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by the wearer, not necessarily to protect the wearer from becoming infected. The mask can protect from larger respiratory droplets only, and the lack of a seal also allows droplets of all sizes to enter one’s nose or mouth from the gaps on the side.
The last and most common option is the cloth mask. Like the surgical mask, this mask is also meant for preventing the spread of Covid-19. Unlike the surgical mask and the N-95 respirator, cloth masks are not Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) so they will be less effective. One 2008 study found that cloth masks may be half as effective as surgical masks and up to 50 times less effective than N-95 respirators. This does not mean however, that it is not worth wearing these masks. The CDC recommends people wear cloth or other homemade masks when out in public because they are much more effective than not wearing a mask at all. The mask that the average person wears in public will not do much to prevent the wearing from contracting Covid-19, but if most people wear masks people will be far less likely to spread the virus to others.
UPDATE: “A range of new research on face coverings shows that the risk to the wearer is decreased by 65 percent said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.”