8 face masks to protect yourself against COVID-19, from worst to best

Covid-19 face mask N95

In this article, I will show you how to pick the best face mask to protect yourself, your family, your staff and your customers from COVID-19. When you finish reading, you will be able to much better defend against the Coronavirus.

COVID-19 made more than 12 million people around the world sick. More than half a million people are now dead as a result.

Through social distancing, travel restrictions and the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, we have held back the spread of COVID-19… Somewhat. However, this is not the time to get complacent. The Coronavirus cases remain on the rise worldwide! The second wave is much worse than the first in many places, with the number of cases increasing exponentially. If we are not careful, there will be even more sickness, more hospitalizations and more fatalities.

Personal protective equipment is our armor in the battle against COVID-19. A mask is the most important piece of PPE because it protects the wearer, as well as the people next to them. Which mask should you put on, and how well does a mask protect you? From worst to best, here are your 8 choices.

Bandana Face Cover COVID-19

8. A bandana.

Covering your face with a bandana, although it is better than nothing, is still inadequate. Scientists at Florida Atlantic University experimented with different non-medical masks to figure out which one was the most effective to help stop the spread of COVID-19. They found that a bandana was the least effective among all mask options. When coughing through a bandana, droplets spread at least 3 feet away from a bandana-covered face. If you want to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, you will have to do better.

Cloth stitched face mask COVID-19

7. A homemade stitched fabric face mask.

Though still not adequate, it is a better option. Droplets travel only about 2.5 inches from a face covered in this manner. However, the filtering capabilities of a fabric face mask are severely limited. The CDC even notes that “A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.” Also, a cloth face mask has to be washed regularly; otherwise, it may actually increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

6. A disposable retail face mask.

These are usually made in China. You can typically find this type of mask in various online and physical stores. These are most often not medical or surgical grade. If you read the label carefully, they offer about 65% “Particle Protective Performance.” I do not know what type of particle they are talking about, but 65% does not inspire confidence. Do you want to breathe in the other 35% that the mask lets through? Still, these are disposable, which means that if thrown away after use, contaminated masks will not transmit the virus. These masks are not suitable for healthcare workers, because they simply do not offer enough protection. Also, these masks are not tested against to the appropriate standards.

5. KN95 face mask.

These are widely available and are the Chinese version of the US-made N95 mask. However, the quality and performance of the KN95 masks are even close to those of the N95. Recently, The Food and Drug Administration banned 65 out of the 80 authorized manufacturers in China from selling masks for medical use. It is hard to believe that more than ¾ of manufacturers produced masks that failed testing! How much protection do you think you have from a KN95 mask?

If you think that we are all in big trouble, you are right. Most countries that manufacture medical-grade masks are not exporting them at this time. Still, some medical grade masks are available and offer better protection against Covid-19. How do we know this?

ASTM International, formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials, is an international standards organization that publishes the specifications to which masks must perform in order to be considered medical grade.

Ear loop face mask (ASTM 1)

4. ASTM level 1 mask.

This is the most basic medical grade mask. It offers good filtration but low barrier protection. Level 1 mask is medical grade and is designed for short procedures and exams that do not involve aerosols, or spraying / leaking body fluids. It offers 80 mm Hg resistance to penetration by synthetic blood, which is mild fluid resistance. This mask also has <4.0 mm H20/cm2 differential pressure, so it is easy to breathe through. The specifications also include ≥95% bacterial filtration efficiency and sub-micron particle filtration efficiency at 0.1 micron of ≥95%. Did you notice how specific the medical grade requirements are? With the ASTM 1 level mask, you are reasonably well protected against COVID-19. (Image courtesy: Medline.com)

3. ASTM level 2 mask.

These offer moderate barrier protection, from low to moderate levels of aerosols, spray and fluids. 120 mm Hg resistance to penetration by synthetic blood is better than ASTM 1 level. <5.0 mm H20/cm2 differential pressure means the mask is still easy to breathe through, and ≥98% bacterial filtration efficiency and sub-micron particle filtration efficiency at 0.1 micron of ≥98% are also an improvement over level 1. Did you notice that the medical grade requirements have gone up significantly? Your chances of infection with the Coronavirus are fairly low if you have, and properly wear, this type of mask. (Image courtesy: Medline.com)

2. ASTM level 3 mask.

These offer even better barrier protection, with 160 mm Hg resistance to penetration by synthetic blood, and the same breathability and filtration efficiency as the ASTM Level 2. Your chances of catching COVID-19 are fairly low if you have and properly wear this type of mask. (Image courtesy: Medline.com, version with face shield shown)

You may now feel pretty good about your safety. Maybe you have a few procedure masks or even surgical masks hidden in your drawer. So all is well, right?

No! Here is the secret that nobody is going to tell you. Procedure and surgical masks are loose-fitting. They do not have a fit-testing requirement. They do not have a seal check requirement. When you breathe through such a mask, leakage occurs around the edge of the mask. This means that the virus could sneak in around the mask and infect you. But is there anything better available for us to wear? Yes.

1. An N95 mask.

This type of mask is usually fluid-resistant but its main focus is to reduce our exposure to particles. N95 masks have a very high filtration efficiency for small particles. Because an N95 mask is tight-fitting and designed to form a seal around the face, the Coronavirus cannot get into your lungs by sneaking around the mask. Air leakage control is the big advantage of the N95 mask compared to the others. The problem is that at the time of this writing, N95 masks are hard to get and some people may find them difficult to breathe in.

To sum up:

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, always wear some facial covering to protect yourself and others from the virus;
  • If you can, get a proper medical grade mask.