The 3 Most Effective — and 2 Least Helpful — Face Masks

Woman with facemask
Photo by r.classen / Shutterstock.com

Wearing a face mask might be among the best ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But some types of masks are significantly more protective than others.

Recently, Duke University put more than a dozen types of masks through their paces.

To test the masks, researchers used a setup that included a box containing a laser and a lens, which turns the laser into a sheet of light. Along with a cellphone camera, this setup allowed researchers to visually inspect which masks were best in reducing droplet emissions during normal wear.

According to Martin Fischer, a chemist and physicist and the director of Duke’s Advanced Light Imaging and Spectroscopy facility:

“We confirmed that when people speak, small droplets get expelled, so disease can be spread by talking, without coughing or sneezing. We could also see that some face coverings performed much better than others in blocking expelled particles.”

The researchers say the most effective masks for protecting you from the coronavirus are:

  1. A fitted N95 mask with no exhalation valve (mask No. 14 in this photo collage from the study)
  2. A three-layer surgical mask (mask No. 1 in the photo)
  3. A polypropylene/cotton mask (mask No. 5 in the photo)

By contrast, two other types of masks — bandanas and neck fleeces such as balaclavas — hardly blocked droplets at all, the researchers found. (They are masks No. 12 and No. 11, respectively, in the photo.)

Dr. Eric Westman, a Duke University physician who has championed the widespread use of masks, says the study underscores how effective masks are in preventing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus:

“If everyone wore a mask, we could stop up to 99% of these droplets before they reach someone else. In the absence of a vaccine or antiviral medicine, it’s the one proven way to protect others as well as yourself.”

The Duke University findings were published in early August in the journal Science Advances.

Back in April, the American Chemical Society reported that a combination of two fabrics — cotton and either natural silk or chiffon — are especially good at filtering out the aerosol coronavirus particles.

Whatever material you choose, make sure the mask fits properly. As we reported in April, just a 1% gap reduces the filtering efficiency of all masks by half or more, according to the ACS.

For more on masks and the coronavirus, check out:

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