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Editor’s note: As we will report below, experts agree that face masks do not replace or relieve the need to wash your hands and social distance, and they absolutely do not alone prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a cloth mask has become a wardrobe staple for most Americans. The CDC recommends them to prevent spread of the virus, especially for those who may be asymptomatic, carrying the virus without realizing it. Many retailers are selling non-medical masks, and many are touting masks with extra protection like insertable filters, which have become more popular — they can help further minimize airborne particulate. And, of course, masks are expanding into various styles, including face masks for kids and an entire universe of handmade face masks on Etsy. Another popular mask trend? Antimicrobial masks. Major retailers like Amazon and Etsy are selling antimicrobial masks — even biotechnology companies have even gotten in on the trend. Do you need an antimicrobial face mask? And how should you go about finding the right one for you? We consulted medical experts on what this feature means and how to best shop for it in your next face mask.
How do antimicrobial face masks work?
Repeated wear of cloth masks can cause unpleasant odors, discoloration and deterioration of the fabric, explains Jeffrey Keane, CEO of Noble Biomaterials, a biotechnology company specializing in antimicrobials for soft surfaces, the cloth in face masks among them. Antimicrobial masks aim to solve that issue, in addition to self-sanitizing — basically, the face mask includes materials that help keep it clean as it helps keep you clean. These cloth masks are designed to be odor-resistant and to help prevent the growth of bacteria on the surface of the fabric, said Keane. His company created an EPA-registered antimicrobial found recently in some masks in the market, said Keane. “The virus and bacteria are a threat on soft surfaces like fabric masks, and antimicrobial masks help eliminate cross contamination,” Keane noted.
“If you put your hands on a regular mask to adjust it, the virus could end up on your hand and then later on your mouth or eyes,” he said. “The antimicrobial masks lessen that risk.”
When you cough or sneeze into an antimicrobial mask, positively charged ions in the fabric will inhibit and eliminate bacteria on the surface of the mask, said Keane. Antimicrobial masks also help to eliminate odor from use, which Keane believes will increase the likelihood you — or your kids — will wear the mask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates coronavirus could be viable for “hours to days.” Though it’s important to note there hasn’t been a documented case of a person getting infected from a surface contaminated with the new coronavirus.
Experts say the less porous a surface, the more virus you will get on your hands when you touch it. And any area that’s touched frequently, like doorknobs and elevator buttons, are most infectious.
Particularly popular among antimicrobial masks are copper masks, which contain — you guessed it — copper, which helps kill bacteria and viruses that come in contact with it. A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that the COVID-19 virus died within hours when placed on a copper surface.
Do antimicrobial masks prevent coronavirus?
No. WHO reports that COVID-19 is primarily spread through person-to-person contact, or contact with some contaminated surfaces. There’s limited information about the effectiveness of wearing a mask made with antimicrobial material, said Richard Martinello, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine.
It’s true that copper sports antiviral properties, for example, but it would have to be incorporated into every single fiber to fully live up to its potential. And a mask made entirely of copper wouldn’t let you breathe easily through it (violating one of the CDC’s guidelines for buying face masks in the first place). It would also be very expensive. Experts are also currently unsure about the health risks of wearing a copper mask, and how much copper is actually in these antimicrobial masks, said Martinello — there is no standard for ensuring a face mask actually includes copper to any level of effectiveness.
“It’s possible that they may be less contaminated from bacteria from your skin, but that contamination should be managed with regular laundering of the mask if it is reusable,” he said, harkening back to what experts we’ve consulted in the past months keep repeating: Face masks simply don’t replace the need to wash your hands frequently or practice safe social distancing. “I think it is reasonable to consider antimicrobial or copper-impregnated masks a waste of money.”
What’s more, those wearing antimicrobial masks may feel more protection, despite little evidence, said Iahn Gonsenhauser, the chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He worries the false confidence may lead wearers to clean the mask less frequently, which can reduce its effectiveness.
“The best thing to do is clean your mask,” he said. “We don’t want people to rely on some protection from a specific mask that’s not really there.”
How to find the right mask for you
Regardless of where you buy your mask — and whether it sports copper or not — prioritize material quality and breathability. Look for masks with multiple layers of tightly-woven-yet-breathable fabric like cotton, Gonsenhauser said. A simple test of a mask’s effectiveness is to hold it up to the sky. If you can see the sunlight through the fabric, it’s not tightly-woven enough, he said. (Note: It bears repeating that no face mask replaces the need for regular hand-washing and social distancing.)
Some masks come with an additional filter or pocket for an insertable filter. While filter masks offer some additional protection against particulate, they aren’t completely effective, either. The mask’s fit is more important than a lack of additional filtering, said Gonsenhauser.
“In order for any mask to work, it has to be fitted tightly,” he said. “If air gets in through the sides of a mask, it’s not going through the filter. It’s completely ineffective.”
Masks cannot fully protect you from contracting the virus from someone else, either. But most homemade or bought cloth masks can help reduce transmission of the virus to others by blocking large droplets from coughing or sneezing. Gonsenhauser said even the most rudimentary face masks reduce respiratory droplets up to 50 percent.
“To us in medicine, that’s a compelling argument for why everyone should be wearing masks — symptomatic or not,” he said.
Where to shop for antimicrobial masks
If you’re shopping for an antimicrobial face mask, we’ve compiled face masks whose listed features include copper-infused material or antimicrobial fabric. We’ve included only those masks whose listed features adhere to the CDC’s recommended criteria, as well as the expert guidance we share above.
These reusable masks come in five solid colors and other designs, including cheetah print and camo. Masks are two layers and have an antimicrobial finish. The retailer is also donating 20 percent of all mask sales to Crisis Text Line, a text-based crisis text-based service providing free support.
These washable masks are made of 100-percent cotton, with woven strands of antimicrobial silver and copper, and come in packs of five. The company is also partnering with Fruit of the Loom, Los Angeles Apparel and others to get free masks out to health care and essential workers.
The company’s “Vanguard Mask” is made with antimicrobial material and a built-in cotton gauze filter. Masks come in two sizes and six colors, and they have adjustable straps for a more comfortable fit. For each mask sold, the retailer will donate a mask to frontline workers at Cedars Sinai, the U.S. Postal Service, Los Angeles Fire Department and the Home Depot.
Masks are made of a polyester blend outer layer and a copper-lined yarn inner layer. Masks come in eight colors and three sizes, and are machine washable (up to 50 times). The company has pledged to donate masks to health care workers, and has previously donated to the Food Bank of New York City.
Masks are made of an antimicrobial yarn blend that’s washable and reusable. Each one has an adjustable copper wire nose crimp and elastic ear loops for a more snug fit. Masks come in two sizes and two colors. Antimicrobial technology was developed by Noble Biomaterials, whose CEO Jeffrey Keane we consult above.
Available in packs of five, Buck Mason's masks are designed to last up to 30 wash cycles. The inner layer of the mask is made of antimicrobial material, and the outer layer is made of a polyester/rayon blend. For every mask purchased, the brand will donate one to a healthcare worker. So far, they’ve been able to donate more than 650,000 masks to healthcare workers.
These masks are made of four layers of cotton woven with copper and they’re both washable and reusable. Masks come in packs of two and have adjustable ear loops and nose bridge for a tighter fit.
8. Freaker USA
These antimicrobial masks, made also from Noble Biomaterials’ technology, come in packs of five. Washable masks come in different patterns — including smiley faces and rainbows — and are made of acrylic, nylon and yarn. With each order, the retailer will donate five masks via Mask-Match.com.
These antimicrobial masks are odor-resistant and prevent moisture from entering the mask. The tightly fabric is breathable and comfortable, made of yarn that’s infused with plant-based oil. Masks come in four sizes and four colors: light grey, dark grey navy and white. Masks can also come in animal prints and camo styles.
The menswear company is selling washable “Everyday Masks,” which come in two sizes and seven colors. Masks comprise three layers: a 100-percent cotton outer layer with an antimicrobial finish, a 100-percent polyester inner layer and a pocket for an insertable filter. Each mask also comes with a moldable metal piece on the nose for a snugger fit. With every purchase, the company is donating to Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit dedicated to getting means to vulnerable seniors.
The mattress company has pivoted to making and selling copper-infused face masks, made from organic materials. Masks are made of knitted fabric woven with strands of 17-percent copper. Masks are reusable and machine washable.