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As the coronavirus pandemic enters its newest phase, a surge in cases of the Omicron variant (a highly transmissible version of the virus with multiple mutations), the tools we need to keep ourselves and our families safe have evolved a bit. So, yes, that means the masks you may have been wearing in early 2020 and beyond may or may not be the right fit for keeping safe in 2022.
For starters, we’re not going to be doing the homemade DIY cloth masks anymore, particularly if they’re just one or two thin layers. Those masks, while invaluable when other options for proper protection/PPE was more scarce, aren’t going to stand up against Omicron: The pores in the fabric are typically not going to actually protect the super small aerosolized droplets of the virus.
So, now that there are more higher-quality masks available, you’ll want to consider switching to surgical masks, N95, KN95 or KF94 Respirator masks. Though the latter are still mostly preferred for people who are in high-risk settings or work in healthcare and have seen numerous counterfeits for sale since the pandemic began, there are a few options that offer that level of protection without crossing the line of taking medical-grade equipment away from medical professionals (ex: check out Project N95 for starters).
These masks, compared to cloth counterparts. Per a yet-to-be peer-reviewed study published in August, researchers found that surgical masks offered 95 percent efficacy filtering out particles compared to cloth masks (which had 37 percent efficacy). The N95’s effective rating comes down to it being designed to have the optimal seal and the dense layers of fibers needed to filter out a lot more particles (both in the inhale and exhale), while cloth masks (particularly cotton ones) are overwhelmingly only good at the exhale part.
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“It’s really best to find a mask that has been approved by a regulating body,” Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Steve Gordon, MD says. “But the truth is that at the end of the day, any mask that fits closely to the face is better than a mask that doesn’t.”
Shaun Veran, Microbiologist and Co-Founder of OURA, also told SheKnows that fit and the number of layers may make most cloth masks less than ideal. But they are the factors people should look for when trying to pick the right masks for their household.
“Through the course of the pandemic, there have been shifting advisories from the CDC. From homemade masks to double masking, all of these changes in advisory have coincided with new variants of the virus,” Veran says.”With the more contagious Omicron variant, it is time to take a closer look at the mask that you are using. Omicron has been shown to be much more contagious compared to the previous variants of the virus. Because of this, some cloth masks provide inadequate protection. In order to be protected today, your mask needs to function better.”
He goes on the share that there are two factors to really prioritize when trying to make sure your mask is effective: it’s ability to filter out particles and how well it fits.
“You can find cloth masks that are made of all kinds of materials that have varying filtration rates. For example, a single-layer mask that is made of thin, loose cotton would not filter as effectively as a mask with multiple layers made of tightly woven fabric. With Omicron, it is more important than ever to know the filtration rate of your mask. Specifically, you want to look for masks that filter at least 95 percent of particles from the air with lab results performed by an independent laboratory,” Veran says. “Second, you want to make sure that your mask fits your face well. If the mask is loose and doesn’t fit your face well, it allows air to flow in from the sides and seep into the mask, compromising the protection. The better the mask seals to your face, the more the air will be filtered. It is best if you get a mask that is sized to fit your face to avoid the issue of air seeping through the sides.”
And, finally, since you’ll be masking up your whole family, we did want to check whether there were any differences between masks that work for adults and those that work for kids. Turns out, whether it’s teens, tweens or little ones, mask safety and efficacy doesn’t change much, according to Veran: “No matter how old you are, these two points are what you want to be aware of when determining how effective your mask is. With the Omicron variant rapidly spreading through the population, now is the time to make sure that you and your family have the correct protection.”
Before you go, check out the best all-natural cold remedies for kids: