Since the coronavirus outbreak began in China last year, face masks have gone from something you see on your dental hygienist to a sold-out commodity in high demand, despite warnings from high-ranking health officials that the masks could do more harm than good when worn by healthy people.
But certain masks are appropriate for certain people to wear as the novel coronavirus spreads.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are sick with COVID-19 and around other people, home caregivers of patients who cannot wear a mask, and healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients can all benefit from masks, which may help prevent novel coronavirus droplets from spreading.
Not all masks are created equal, though: Face masks like the N95 help contain virus particles from people with symptoms who must go out in public, and help keep health workers safe from contracting the virus through particles released by mucus and cough sputum when they are around infected individuals. More expensive full-face respirators should be reserved for people who have trouble breathing in regular masks, or healthcare workers whose facial hair prevents an N95 mask from sealing correctly.
Here's the breakdown of which conditions each mask is designed for and who really needs to wear one. Remember, all of this protective assurance only applies if you wear the mask correctly, and make sure it fits snugly. Most people don't do that.
The “N” in an N95 stands for “not resistant to oil” and the 95 means that during “worst case” testing, the filter was able to capture 95% of the most penetrating particles in the air (down to 0.3 microns).
A “P” mask is, by contrast, “oil proof,” but that's kind of overkill for a novel virus that is most often transmitted through coughing and close contact between people. P100 masks filter out at least 99.97% of airborne particles, while paper surgical masks don't guarantee anywhere near the same level of protection as N95s or P100s because of their loose-fitting design.
“While a surgical mask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures,” the US Food and Drug Administration says on its website.
Mask maker 3M, likewise, warns its consumers “no matter how well a respirator seals to the face and how efficient the filter media is … no respirator will eliminate exposures entirely.”
Most people don't know how to properly wear a mask in the first place. One study conducted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina found that less than one in four N95 wearers (24%) were using their mask correctly.
“Common mistakes included the (metal) clip not being pressed or tightened against the contours of the user's face, straps incorrectly placed, and putting the respirator on upside down,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.