It’s a new world we live in, where wearing face masks is the new norm. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has taught us many things, among them the importance of good hygiene and how to protect ourselves when we go out. With a shortage of N95 masks (masks that filter out at least 95% of airborne particles), the CDC has recommended that the wearing of cloth face coverings is a suitable substitute.
How Effective Are Cloth Face Masks?
For an introduction, here is a must-watch video explaining the effectiveness of wearing face masks, and how it helps to prevent the spread of viruses.
So let’s get into the data. How effective exactly are cloth face masks, and are some cloth face masks better than others? Below are some helpful infographics and links to resources that will help you make your own decision.
How Do Cloth Face Masks Compare?
A good comparison to help understand the effectiveness of cloth face masks is to see how they compare to surgical masks. Here’s an infographic that helps visualize the differences:
What this says is that cloth face masks made from a cotton t-shirt captures 69% of harmful particles, versus 96% from that of a surgical mask. This data clearly shows that wearing a cloth face mask is better than wearing no mask at all.
Which Materials Work Best for Cloth Face Masks?
For comparison, this chart shows the effectiveness of materials that can be found around the house, including cotton t-shirts and pillowcases.
Although all these household materials seem to be good candidates, one more factor to consider is how breathable the fabric is. The easier it is to breathe using your cloth face mask and the more comfortable it is, the longer you can wear your mask. As an example, although the dish cloth and the vacuum bag captured the most particles, they were also the hardest to breathe through. These same researchers found that the most breathable fabrics are pillowcase fabric and cotton t-shirt fabric.
What About Placing Filters Inside Face Masks?
Cloth facemasks can be designed with filter pockets inside of them. This is an extra pocket space to insert another type of material for added protection. The filter can also be easily replaced and is disposable. How effective are these filter inserts, and which material works best?
In her article “DIY Face Mask Filter Materials: What to Use, What to Avoid“, blogger Jennifer Marx has done a very thorough job in covering these materials, which includes coffee filters, blue shop towels, paper towels, HEPA vacuum cleaner bag filters, and even sanitary napkins.
Another article “DIY Masks: Is Paper Towel Effective at Blocking Viruses?” shows how adding a paper towel as a filter will increase particle capture by 10%:
Another university study even found that a normal face mask that can screen out 48% of small dust particles can increase particle capture to 75%-90% just by adding tissue paper as a filter.
What is the Best Cloth Face Mask Fabric?
Our conclusion is that a layer of pillowcase or bedsheet fabric, and second layer of cotton t-shirt fabric, are the best choices to make cloth face masks from. This is based on both their particle capture and breathability. When it comes to using pillowcases or bedsheet fabric, researchers say that a higher thread count is more effective. Adding a filter to your cloth face mask is an effective way of adding an extra layer of protection.