These days, we cruise grocery store aisles with colorful cloth masks looped over our ears. We walk around in medical masks like surgeons on lunch break. We sport tube masks formerly favored by fishermen and tie on bandannas bank-robber style.
Orders in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties say we must mask up. In fact, more than half of U.S. states now have face-covering mandates.
But which mask, you ask?
Can a disposable do the trick? Are more breathable masks with valves too good to be true? What about ordinary cloth masks and those plastic face shields?
By now, we’ve learned that your mask helps protect people around you, and their masks help protect you.
Worn by an infected person who sneezes, coughs, talks or even sings, a mask can help stop contagious droplets from ending up in someone else’s mouth and nose. And even their eyes. It’s also believed that a mask may help protect the wearer, too.
Health officials say a mask-wearing public is a good strategy — along with hand-washing and keeping our distance — for stemming the spread of COVID-19.
So how do masks rate?
Since they filter out 95 percent of airborne particles, surgical grade N95 masks are considered most effective. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that these masks should go to healthcare workers and first-responders.
Masks with valves — coin-sized apparatuses embedded in the mask and designed to make it easier to exhale — are everywhere. And some health officials have expressed reservations.
Some N95 masks with valves are intended for dusty construction work. The mask keeps the wearer from breathing in bad stuff and the valve allows some breath out. Cloth masks with valves are also available, and they’re popular.
But remember, in the current crisis, filtering what a mask-wearer is exhaling is a big reason for wearing a mask in the first place.
“If you have a valve, that’s kind of defeating the purpose of the whole mask,” said Dr. Michael Teng, virologist and associate professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. “You’re trying to prevent transmission out.”
“Valve masks are fine for construction sites,” said Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “For disease-control purposes, they’re not fine. They’re not designed for what we’re trying to do.”
When Disney World reopened in July with a face covering requirement for visitors, masks “containing valves, mesh material or holes of any kind” were not acceptable. This week, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines prohibited masks with exhalation valves.
Those thin, blue-and-white disposable surgical masks also are popular. Some include a melt-blown polypropylene filtration layer. A doctor speaking recently on National Public Radio said that hospital-type masks may seem thin and paper-like, but they have a “cotton candy-like plastic material, sort of like in air filters.”
“They’re very good at blocking the air coming out,” said Teng.
It’s basic cloth masks that the CDC recommends when we’re out in public. Health officials prefer that cloth masks, whether homemade or store-bought, are constructed from thicker material like quilting cotton and are a minimum of two layers. They should be washed frequently.
“Homemade cloth masks are fine,” said Rutherford.
Gaiters, tubes of stretchy lightweight fabric worn around the neck and pulled up over the nose and mouth by outdoor types to keep ears warm or prevent sunburn, have lately been repurposed as coronavirus face coverings.
What makes them comfortable is also their potential downside.
“They’re so thin, it doesn’t stop anything,” said Teng. He suggests folding the one-layered masks over twice to form four layers in a pinch.
Basic bandannas worn bandit style also can suffer from the single-layer malady.
Disney says neck gaiters and “open-chin triangle bandannas” are not acceptable face-coverings in the park, “based on guidance from health authorities.”
Face shields — sheets of clear plastic that cover the whole face and are attached to a band around the head — are “fast becoming the hot summer pandemic accessory” seen on joggers and restaurant and salon workers, says the San Francisco Chronicle.
The plus: People can see your facial expressions. The minus: Shields are not recommended by the CDC “for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for masks.”
The virus “can just kind of come out from underneath the shield, so that’s not very helpful,” said Teng.
Worn with a mask, however, face shields may add a layer of protection.
Overall, health officials seem to agree that any mask is better than no mask at all.
General mask advice: Make sure the fit is snug, so air doesn’t escape through gaps. And do not wear your mask tucked below your nose.
“You’ve got to wear them over your nose. Don’t be stupid,” said Rutherford. “You inhale and exhale more from your nose than you do from your mouth.”
And a mask tucked under the chin is akin to no mask at all.
Making the case for masks, Rutherford points to two hairstylists at a salon in Missouri who both had the coronavirus. But none of the 139 people they interacted with showed signs of getting sick, and of 67 clients who agreed to get tested, none were positive.
The stylists had worn double-layered cotton face coverings or surgical masks. Nearly all the clients interviewed wore masks, too.
The director of the CDC has said that the spread of COVID-19 could be under control in a matter of weeks if everyone wore one.
A mask “just says you care,” said Teng. “You care about yourself. You care about other people.”
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