Face Masks: Good, Better, Best

By Sarah Garcia - July 06, 2020

The benefits of face masks are twofold when it comes to curbing COVID-19: preventing healthy people from getting sick, and keeping those who may be infected from contaminating others.

Mask required sign in storefront
A 'Mask Required' sign hangs in a storefront on Nassau Street in Manhattan, NY. Photo courtesy of Peter Burka on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It’s a simple concept – a cloth face covering can help limit or prevent respiratory droplets from traveling through the air when a person coughs, sneezes or speaks. Many businesses, workplaces and even entire cities have enacted mandatory face mask policies in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

But with so many masks out there, from handmade to surgical – how do they stack up and how do you know how much protection they offer?

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University set out to answer that question, studying how various face masks prevent the spread of droplets from emulated coughing, sneezing, talking and breathing. For the study, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, they tested three type of face coverings: a folded cotton handkerchief, a homemade mask stitched using two-layers of cotton quilting fabric with 70 threads per inch and a non-sterile cone-style mask (available off the shelf).

Here is how the three types of face coverings performed in testing:

Folded Cotton Handkerchief
With the folded cotton handkerchief, droplets from the simulation traveled 1 foot, 3 inches, as illustrated in the graphic below. 

(a) A face mask constructed using a folded handkerchief. Images taken at (b) 0.5 s, (c) 2.27 s, and (d) 5.55 s after the initiation of the emulated cough. Visual courtesy of Florida Atlantic University, College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Dual Layer Cotton Handmade Mask
With the stitched quilting cotton mask, droplets from the simulation traveled 2.5 inches, as illustrated in the graphic below.

(a) A homemade face mask stitched using two-layers of cotton quilting fabric. Images taken at (b) 0.2 s, (c) 0.47 s, and (d) 1.68 s after the initiation of the emulated cough. Visual courtesy of Florida Atlantic University, College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Non-Sterile, Cone-Style Mask
With the cone-style mask, droplets from the simulation traveled about 8 inches, as illustrated in the graphic below.

(a) An off-the-shelf cone style mask. (b) 0.2 s after initiation of the emulated cough. (c) 0.97 s after initiation of the emulated cough. The leading plume, which has dissipated considerably, is faintly visible. (d) 3.7 s after initiation of the emulated cough. Visual courtesy of Florida Atlantic University, College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The study also evaluated the use of a single-layer bandana style covering, which was found to be substantially less effective at reducing droplet transmission than the other types of coverings.

The accompanying visuals presented in this study serve to reinforce the need to contain respiratory droplets, which Stacy Martin, RN, manager of the Infection Prevention and Control Department at Moffitt Cancer Center, said is very important in curbing transmission of the virus.

“This study and these visuals demonstrate that masks of all types help to shorten both the distance and dispersion of the contaminates,” she said. “It also shows how effective even a ‘less optimal’ face covering is at containing those particles.”

Martin says the study aligns with the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all to wear face coverings in public and particularly when social distancing is not possible.

“Another important reminder is to cover your cough with a tissue or in the crook of your elbow if you are caught off guard with a cough or sneeze and no face covering,” Martin says. “And we cannot stress enough the importance of proper hand hygiene.”

For the latest information on face coverings, from making them to caring for them, check out this CDC webpage. Be sure you’re wearing your mask correctly, too, with these tips.

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