The spread of COVID-19 has necessitated face masks as an everyday part of American life. In August, Etsy creators alone sold $356 million worth of homemade face masks. Whether we like it or not, face masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future and cloth masks are some of the easiest and cheapest to buy and make. However, nearly all cloth masks might not be protecting you as much as they should.
All About Cloth Masks
Cloth masks can be made with up to three layers and (preferably) with water-resistant, tightly woven fabric. Some even include pouches to hold reusable filters. These masks are easy to find and—according to the CDC—they also may provide some protection if designed and used properly. But is it enough protection?
Cloth masks are not as effective as N95 masks, which filter 95% of airborne particles down to 0.3 microns. (For reference, a Coronavirus particle ranges from 0.5-0.2 microns, but is mostly spread through larger aerosolized droplets from an infected person.) A 2015 CDC study in Vietnam showed that rates of infection were significantly higher in those who wore cloth masks compared to a group that wore surgical masks. The study used locally manufactured double-layered cotton masks over a 4-week period. Participants were given 5 masks and were instructed to wash them daily with soap and water. The CDC concluded that—although the results could have been from improperly washing the masks or not washing them at all—the rates of infection were still higher than those in the control group and the group with surgical masks.
There are also other things to consider when using a cloth mask. The CDC reviewed 19 different studies on the effectiveness of filtration in cloth masks and found that the filtration is typically lower in cloth masks than in surgical masks. Rachael Jones, an associate professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah, says that leakage in air flow in cloth masks is also a problem. She states that if viral particles are already floating around, they could be small enough to fit right through a cloth mask.
Wearing a Mask is Only One Piece of the Puzzle
Ultimately, social protocols put into place and face mask use are guidelines that work together. Personal benefits from mask wearing are increased when the community adheres to guidelines such as social distancing and proper hygiene. And cloth masks are soon getting new guidelines as ASTM International—an organization that develops and enforces technical standards—has partnered with industry and government organizations to create guidelines for the filtration efficacy of face masks, including those made of cloth and fabric. These regulations will be applied to private sellers of face masks and will include a label that certifies they’ve met the guidelines. This will no doubt help consumers decide which face masks are suitable for them and also ease anxiety that comes with mask wearing, especially in densely populated places.
Because of mask shortages earlier this year, the CDC began recommending cloth masks for public use until the manufacture of surgical and N95 masks became more optimized and more available to the public. For the time being, the CDC recommends wearing cloth masks that have at least two layers and are washable—and keeping up with washing it daily or after being in high-exposure environments.
Until safety standards for cloth masks are established and reinforced by the CDC, general use masks that meet ASTM standards and NIOSH-approved N95 respirators should be used for the highest protection from COVID-19.