What Face Masks Are Most Effective Against Coronavirus? A New Study Offers Some Answers

One face covering spread more droplets than not wearing a mask at all.

By now, you’ve amassed a collection of masks to go with every outfit in your WFH arsenal, and probably have a designated key hook for your favorite one. (Yes, it’s tie-dye, and yes, you bought it off an Instagram ad.) Because they’re one of the simplest, effective ways to stop the spread of coronavirus, you have your water-resistant mask for running, your linen one for socially distant hangs, and your one surgical mask, just in case. But which types of face masks are the most effective against coronavirus?

A new study published online in the journal Science Advances sheds some light on the topic. Duke University researchers looked at 14 different kinds of masks, from N95s, to homemade cloth masks, to those neck gaiters your dad probably wears for fishing. A volunteer said a simple phrase — “stay healthy, people” — while wearing each mask, while a laser beam illuminated the respiratory droplets that came through the face covering. An iPhone caught the experiment on tape, and the researchers used a computer algorithm to count the droplets.

N95 respirators without valves let out the least amount of droplets, while neck gaiters actually spread more droplets than if the person hadn’t been wearing a mask in the first place, likely because the fabric broke up normal droplets into smaller ones. “Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of such a mask might be counterproductive,” the authors wrote in the study. Coronavirus spreads via exposure to infected droplets, which are what come out whenever you breathe, cough or sneeze, or talk, and droplets in aerosolized form, which are much smaller and can hang around in the air for up to a few hours.

Bandanas tied around the nose were found to be a little better than neck gaiters, but not very protective compared to cloth masks, especially cloth masks with multiple layers of fabric or filters. After N95s, which are typically reserved for health care workers, disposable surgical masks came in as the next-most effective.

The researchers set out to analyze the technique by which they measured droplet transmission, not the droplet transmission itself, but the findings are still useful, given how quickly the science on coronavirus is evolving. The study authors noted that the study wasn’t comprehensive of all possible mask designs, and was limited in scope: The masks were tested by up to five speakers, but some evidence has shown that speech volume can affect how far respiratory droplets go, which can in turn affect how many infections result.

As long as you’re wearing a mask that’s designed to actually be a mask, not just something that covers your nose and mouth, it’s helpful to keep coronavirus from spreading (and in some cases, protect you from being infected, too). While more research needs to be done to standardize what masks work best, when, these findings should give some peace of mind.

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