Throughout 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic we’ve developed a whole new vocabulary for our must-have accessories and why we need them: face masks, face shields and, now, face mask filters and brackets. We know, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, that a well-fitting reusable cloth face mask or N95 mask is advised for protection from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Wearing a mask can protect yourself and individuals around you from potentially being exposed to droplets from your mouth and nose — if everyone in a room (if you have to be indoors and in a room) wears a mask, it’s net good for those people and their own social bubbles.
“There are a variety of masks but the 3 basic ones are: surgical, N95 and cloth,” Dr. Robert Mordkin is Chief Medical Officer for LetsGetChecked tells SheKnows. “As a general statement, masks help reduce the risk of infection (including COVID-19) but decreasing the amount of droplets released into the surrounding air when the wearer is talking, coughing or sneezing. The N95 masks, in particular, can filter out both large and small particles or droplets…Countries that have aggressively employed the widespread and consistent use of masks have successfully reduced their rates of community COVID-19 infections. For a mask to be useful, the wearer should constantly have their mask covering BOTH their nose AND mouth.”
So by now most of us have figured out our responsible non-medical grade face covering system that works: a DIY mask, a sporty athleisure-brand designed one that promises not to make your skin break out. But when you’re looking to buy a mask there are many products touting the benefits of filters or pockets for filters. So, uh, what’s up with that? So we need those too?
Do you need a filter? It depends on your mask!
Mordkin says that with a good quality mask that has multiple layers (or when you’re double masking), filters aren’t entirely necessary — the priority should always be on a firm fit and creating a good seal to avoid letting droplets out: “The cloth masks are the ones that are typically available to the general public while surgical masks and N95 masks are most often utilized by healthcare professionals and other front-line workers.”
Melissa Penn, Co-Founder & CIO of Co.Protect tells SheKnows that filters can be helpful to “provide extra protection” because “using the mask with a filter slows the spread of the virus. Filters block respiratory droplets while still allowing you to breathe comfortably.”
Research has shown that the material of your mask does matter, including this study of mask material from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center: “The best-performing design was constructed of two layers of high-quality, heavyweight ‘quilter’s cotton’ with a thread count of 180 or more, and those with especially tight weave and thicker thread such as batiks. A double-layer mask with a simple cotton outer layer and an inner layer of flannel also performed well.”
Penn went in to a bit more detail about the layers (including filtration) that can make a mask most effective: “The safest masks combine three key factors (1) Multiple layers (2) Blend of performance and comfort Layers (3) Unique properties within each of the layers. Layer 1, next to your skin, should be light, comfortable and weigh approximately 20-30gm. This layer should be non-woven, non rigid thread so that you can breathe easy. Layer 2, is the middle layer and provides a barrier to transmission/emission of moisture droplets. This layer is rated in percentage, for the amount of moisture which can pass through. The higher the rating, the lower amount of moisture pass through. Our mask ratings are in the 90’s – meaning 90 percent or more moisture is unable to pass through the mask and on to the user. The final, 3rd layer, is the exterior facing layer and should be slightly heavier in weight (30-40gm), so the mask holds shape and a quality form around the face and nose. “
What makes an effective mask filter?
We’ll start with what doesn’t: “Masks with ‘exhaust valves’ are not effective and therefore not recommended,” Mordkin says. Instead, you want multiple layers (particularly in your DIY masks) to make sure you’re not breathing particles out anyway and to create a more comprehensive barrier between germs and yourself.
And filters provide a way to block some of the smaller particles from getting through. “An effective Mask Filter serves two functions: (1) Allows normal breathing and airflow (2) Captures a high percentage of the virus’s particles,” Penn says.
Coffee filters and paper towels have also been recommended by experts as a DIY hack for that extra filtration layer (worn between the other layers) that can be disposed of between wears. But there are also a number of products on the market that are designed to fit your mask or in the handy pockets sewn in to many retail masks.
For these filters, again keeping in mind that its another disposable layer of protection, you might want to look out for PM2.5 filters (which are sold at a number of retailers) — PM2.5 in the name refers to the size of the tiniest particles (2.5 microns) they are able to keep out.
Another metric to look out for is the MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value), which is touted on filters capable of blocking and trapping tiny airborne particles.
How do you care for filters and your mask?
Experts agree that washing your well-fitting reusable mask, having alternates for when yours needs to be cleaned and disposing of additional filters/disposable masks when you double-up is the best way to go for keeping your protective equipment, well, protective.
“Paper, cloth and homemade masks are not the safest option. Multi-use masks that have not undergone UV sterilization after each individual use are not safe,” Penn says. “If your mask is filtered, be aware many airlines do not allow filter valve masks for air travel. The best way to ‘manage your mask’ is to have several masks, each individually packaged and deployable when required. Using many masks, one-time is a safer strategy than using one mask, many times.”
So do you need a face mask filter? It wholly depends on the masks you work with on the daily and what is the right fit for your family and lifestyle. The most important thing is making sure that your mask fits well and creates a seal around you rnose and mouth. But, if you do end up picking up face mask filters, be sure to keep everything clean and well-fitting in order to not undermine your health-conscious work.
A version of this story was published July 2020.
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Before you go, check out the best kids face masks you (probably) won’t have to wrestle on to tiny faces: