Everyone should wear face coverings whenever you're interacting with others during the coronavirus pandemic. But how do those differ from medical-grade face masks?
Medical-grade masks include disposable surgical face masks and N95 respirators. Surgical face masks are used to block large particles and respiratory droplets (which are sent into the air when someone coughs or sneezes) from entering or exiting your mouth. Tight-fitting N95 respirator masks are designed to filter smoke, small particles and airborne viruses.
Nonmedical face coverings include reusable cloth masks, bandanas, and scarves, and are used in the same way as a surgical mask, to protect you against large particles and respiratory droplets. However, this kind of protective covering must be cleaned between uses and is generally not used in a medical setting.
If you've ever been to the dentist, surgical face masks will look familiar -- health care professionals use them to prevent the splashing of fluids into their mouths. They're loose-fitting and allow airborne particles in. People commonly wear face masks in East Asian countries to protect themselves from smog and respiratory diseases.
Again, a surgical face mask's main purpose is to keep out the liquid of an infected person's sneeze or cough from entering your mouth or nose (gross, I know). Wearing one can protect you from getting sick if you're in close contact with someone who is ill and could also help prevent you from spreading your illness to someone else, so it's common practice for medical professionals to wear them around sick patients.
Face coverings are meant to protect you in the same way that disposable surgical masks do, by blocking large particles and respiratory droplet.
According to the Department of Public Health, face coverings should cover the nose and mouth and can be made from a variety of fabrics, including cotton, silk or linen. You can opt to buy a premade cloth mask, or fashion one from household items like scarfs, T-shirts, sweatshirts or towels.
These face coverings should be washed in hot water and dried on high heat in a dryer between uses to kill any bacteria or viruses that get on them. The CDC does say to be sure to wash your hands before and after handling your face covering because it may have harmful viruses or bacteria on its surface. You also should not touch your face or face covering while wearing it out in public.
However, jets of air can still escape sideways and backwards, especially with coughing or heavy breathing. Plus, researchers found that only masks with a tight seal around one's face prevent the spread of fluid particles carrying a virus. Still, this is good news regarding how widespread use of face coverings can help us slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That's where a respirator, a tight-fitting protective device worn around the face, comes in. When people say "respirator," they're usually referring to the N95 respirator, which gets its name from the fact that it blocks at least 95% of tiny particles, including viruses. Several brands manufacture N95 respirators, and they come in all different sizes. These are the masks people are most strongly requested to save for medical professionals, so it's recommended that everyone not go out and buy them.
You should also know that N95 respirators come in two varieties, ones with an external one-way air valve and ones without it (also called surgical N95 respirators). With both types of respirators, the mask itself filters out the air your breathe in, protecting you from contaminants in the air. Respirators with a one-way valve help keep the mask cool and less stuffy because the warm air you breathe out escapes more easily.
However, according to the CDC, that means that respirators with a valve also allow unfiltered air to escape and spread into the air around you. This is typically only a concern in sterile environments, like an operating room, but it's led to some cities banning the use of N95 respirators with a valve in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
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