Researchers Found Which Face Coverings Actually Work (While Some Don't)

A recent study tested 14 commonly-used facial coverings including N95 masks and bandanas to find which are the most effective.

Scientists tested 14 facial coverings to find which were the most effective | Emma Fischer, Duke University
Scientists tested 14 facial coverings to find which were the most effective | Emma Fischer, Duke University

A new study tested the efficiency of several facial coverings commonly used to curb the spread of COVID-19. The results found some popular options don’t actually offer much protection, while others can cause the virus to spread more easily.

Infectious disease experts and health organizations worldwide have encouraged people to wear masks in public for months during the pandemic— citing data that backs their effectiveness. But at the start of the crisis, personal protective equipment was in short supply, forcing people to find other alternatives.

In the study published August 7, researchers at Duke University tested 14 facial coverings to determine how well they reduced the transmission of respiratory droplets while a person is speaking. Here were the results:

Bandanas, Knitted Masks & Neck Gaiters Offer Little Protection

Bandanas have become a popular alternative for face masks, but the study showed they offer almost no protection for the wearer and people around them. Knitted masks showed a similar poor result.

Neck gaiters, on the other hand, were found to actually be less effective than not wearing a mask at all.

“We noticed that speaking through some masks (particularly the neck fleece) seemed to disperse the largest droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets,” the authors wrote.

The smaller droplets can travel through the air more easily, instead of falling to the floor, researchers wrote.

N95, Surgical, and Some Cotton Masks Are The Best Choice

The research found that of the 14 masks tested, fitted N95 masks were the most effective at protecting both the person wearing them and people around them. Valved N95 masks, however, only offered protection to the wearer.

Three-layer, woven surgical masks were the second most effective choice for catching droplets, followed by multi-layered cotton and polyester masks. Other cotton masks that did not have layers of polyester were less effective at catching droplets, but were still found to be more beneficial than no mask at all.

The Mask Debate Continues

Despite extensive research that masks can help prevent COVID-19 spread, the mask debate in the U.S. has led to acts of violence, protesting, and fake “mask exempt” cards. Leaders have clashed over mask mandates, and President Trump was not shown wearing a mask until four months into the pandemic.

While mask wearing was portrayed as politically divisive earlier in the pandemic, more recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans increasingly support wearing facial coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Experts also recommend social distancing and frequent hand washing to help slow the spread of the virus.

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