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Coronavirus safety: Comparing N95, surgical masks, respirators, cloth masks

For weeks, we’ve heard conflicting information on whether we should wear masks in public. Of course, anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 should stay home and wear a mask to protect those who are not ill. Caregivers for anyone with COVID-19 should also wear a mask. But what about everyone else?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends people wear cloth or fabric face masks in public. Wearing masks is voluntary, so should you do it?

The short answer is, again, yes. Everyone should wear a face mask in public: in grocery stores, in pharmacies, when taking public transportation, when answering your door, especially on airplanes, buses, subways, Uber and Lyft, and everywhere else people gather.

Keep reading to find out what kind of mask you should wear and the safest way to do so.

Why the mixed messages?

Since the start of the coronavirus spread in the U.S., the CDC has said masks were only necessary in public for those infected, showing symptoms or taking care of someone who was. The World Health Organization said the same.

Perhaps the CDC was attempting to conserve face masks for hospitals and first responders. America believed that message — for a while.

But the evidence from South Korea, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia where wearing face masks in public is an ordinary part of daily life, the spread of the virus is reduced — so much so that on April 2, the White House changed its position on face masks.

Now, two questions emerge: What kind of mask should you wear? And how do you put them on without contaminating the mask or yourself?

Which mask is right for me?

There are several varieties of masks floating around on the web and in stores, but which one is the best for your health? Well, the answer depends on a couple of factors — namely what’s in stock at the moment and how far you want to go in terms of protecting yourself.

N-95 respirators

When it comes to simple face masks, the N-95 respirator is clearly one of the best you can buy. The name “N95” refers to the fact that the mask is “Not resistant to oil” (which means it doesn’t protect against liquids) and filters up to 95% of airborne particles.

These masks are also certified by both the WHO and CDC for medical use and are in high demand from doctors around the country.

That’s also the reason the CDC is shooing the public away from them. Right now, they’re in short supply and needed in hospitals. Some eBay sellers are offering so-called KN95 masks, saying they’re as good as the N95. But KN95 masks are made in Chinese factories not certified safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

If you want to order these, you might be out of luck. Most online retailers are barred from selling N95 respirators altogether, and some international sellers are taking advantage of the shortage to sell them at ridiculously high prices. Let the buyer beware.

Surgical Masks

Most health organizations recommend these cheap, disposable masks for regular use by civilians. These masks are multi-layered and are able to protect against liquid droplets, which are a primary vector of COVID-19 transmission.

What these masks do not protect against, however, are airborne particles that may include the SARS-CoV2 virus. Think of surgical masks as a basic precautionary measure to use on top of standard social distancing and isolation practices.

These masks are a bit easier to acquire and can be purchased from CVS and Walmart for about $13 for a set of 50. Shipping estimates are pushed all the way out to May, unfortunately.

Cycling Masks

These masks are designed for aerobic cyclists who bike in heavily polluted areas. As such, they contain an air filter built into the front, which can be useful for filtering out harmful particles.

These masks, while effective, are not regulated to the same standard as medical-grade masks. As such, you shouldn’t expect it to fully protect you from viral particles in the air. Use a cycling mask more as a tool for peace of mind than for full protection.

Cycling masks are currently sold out at most sporting goods stores, but some retailers on Amazon have them for sale for up to $44 a pop. Most shipping estimates put delivery around June of this year.

A literal gas mask

Unless you’re ready to head to those ghastly trenches from the Great War, you probably won’t need a full-fledged gas mask. Heavy metal fans and gothic ravers have long made use of this wartime protective gear for aesthetic purposes, but COVID-19 has caused a significant spike in demand from the general public.

A variety of these masks are available in prices ranging up to hundreds of dollars for military-certified gear. You’ll have to purchase them from an army surplus store, such as this one from the Czech Republic, but don’t expect your order to arrive anytime soon. International shipping is experiencing heavy delays thanks to the virus.

Oh, and you’ll also look extremely paranoid wearing this in public. We’d recommend saving this one for the doomsday bunker instead.

Simple cloth masks, bandanas and scarves

The good news is that for general use and wearing a mask in public for prevention, N95 masks and other protective headgear are NOT necessary. Cloth masks, which are all the rage in both the fashion world and online stores, are fine, fairly inexpensive and easy to wear.

Many of these masks are available from apparel retailers and crafts stores like Etsy for around $20. The masks themselves are reusable and should be thoroughly washed each time you’re finished with them. These masks do not offer full-fledged particle filtration, but instead, add a layer of protection to your face that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Plus, they’re plenty effective at keeping viral particles in on the off chance that you’re an asymptomatic carrier. The same goes for surgical masks, which are actually better at protecting others from your droplets than the other way around.

If you cannot find cloth or surgical masks, you can use a clean bandana or scarf. You may look like you’re about to rob a stagecoach, but you’re adding a measure of personal safety.

How to wear a mask safely

So whether it’s a mask, scarf or bandana, BEFORE you put in on, wash your hands for AT LEAST 20 seconds in hot soapy water, dry your hands with a clean paper towel and throw the paper towel away.

If you’re using a mask, it has two strings that loop behind your ears. Put the mask on and open it up to cover above your nose and below your chin. It’s folded in two places like an accordion.

If the mask has a nose clip, like a surgical mask, pinch the clip snugly to the shape of your nose. This will prevent gaps in the mask, as well as slippage during wear.

While wearing it, do not touch the mask. Promptly take it off and throw it away before walking into your home. Then, wash your hands again.

For scarves and bandanas, make sure they are freshly cleaned. Tie it around your face, covering your nose and mouth. Again, while wearing, do not touch it.

Promptly take it off before walking into your home and put it right in the wash. Set your washer and dryer to sterilize if you have that setting available, or use the hottest water setting you can. Then wash your hands again.

Remember: Always assume everyone you meet has the virus and act accordingly. The only surefire way to prevent contracting the virus is to avoid being exposed to anyone who has it.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, advice, or health objectives.

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