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Since the coronavirus was first declared a pandemic back in early March, the market quickly became flooded with a variety of face masks. From a range of colors and styles that let wearers reflect their personalities, communities are filled with people rocking different designs. But personal aesthetics isn’t the only option that consumers have when it comes to protective face masks — they come in two major categories: disposable face masks and reusable face masks. Is one safer than the other? And what’s the best disposable mask out there? To find out, we asked medical experts what to know before buying your next batch of masks. But before we dive into disposable masks and how to find the best ones, one thing is clear: Any face mask is better than no mask, according to all the experts we consulted. Those same experts also all agreed that medical-grade disposable face masks aren’t recommended for the general public unless they're in a high-risk category — our sources emphasized that medical grade face masks should instead be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.
“Next to social distancing, face masking is without question the most effective mechanism to prevent transmission of virus,” said MarkAlain Déry, DO, MPH, an epidemiologist and medical director for infectious diseases at Access Health Louisiana. “Upwards of 40 percent of individuals that are infected with Covid-19 are asymptomatic and unaware of their status, making them more likely to transmit the virus.”
Yet, there are some who aren’t convinced that wearing masks in public is necessary. “Some people believe that since masks are not 100-percent protective, they have little value,” said Ellen Turner, MD, an infectious diseases physician and adjunct professor at Drexel University College of Medicine. Although disposable face masks aren’t sealed, and therefore droplets can make it out of the side or gaps from the top or bottom when someone coughs or sneezes, those particles aren’t as potent as those from someone without a mask.
“The mask interrupts the velocity or speed of the droplets, so they do not travel as far or as long in the air,” explained Karen Jubanyik, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of “Beat the Coronavirus.”
How to shop for disposable face masks
Before buying a box of disposable face masks, here’s what medical experts recommend you keep in mind.
- Remember the difference between medical-grade face masks and non-medical masks to ensure you’re grabbing the right one for your specific needs (it will be labelled on the box).
- Non-medical masks come in different layer options. You want one that is at least two ply but three ply is ideal.
- If possible, look out for masks that have an inner lining with moisture wicking and anti-bacterial properties.
- Look for an adjustable nose piece. This clip or wire will help keep particles in when you breathe, cough or sneeze — it can also help keep glasses from fogging.
- If you throw on the disposable face mask and it doesn’t fit right, find a different option. You want one that fits closely to the nose, mouth and chin comfortably. And if it starts to slip, it’s not the right mask for you because, among other things, the movement tempts wearers to touch it and their face, which can potentially spread the virus.
- Don’t sweat price points too much. More expensive disposable face masks don’t guarantee better protection.
Best disposable face masks
Disposable face masks have exploded across the market as the public stocks up but not all of these masks offer equal protection. Based on guidance we got from medical experts, here are some of the best medical face masks(for those who need the extra protection) and non-medical face masks to shop.
These medical masks are FDA-registered, meeting strict guidelines for filtration, splash resistance and breathability, according to the brand. The three-ply design features an inner layer that filters bacteria along with an interior made from moisture-absorbing material for mouths and lips. Plus, they are hypoallergenic and latex-free.
As a sleek alternative to the traditional light blue surgical mask, these non-medical face masks are sold in a range of colors. Online users praise this three-ply mask for its comfort and fit as well as its elastic earloops, moldable nose piece and inner filter layer.
For those looking for a stylish option that’s still low-maintenance and disposable, these sleek three-ply face masks deliver. In addition to a BFE greater than 95 percent, MASKC face masks come in a range of prints, have an adjustable nose bridge and a moisture-proof interior layer. Although these masks are more expensive, they give back: MASKC donates one mask for every mask sold to front-line healthcare providers through the C-19 Coalition.
Whether you’re looking for individually-wrapped disposable face masks or affordable non-medical options in a range of designs, WeCare has a range of choices for both kids and adults. From holiday-inspired prints to bold colors and even a tie-dye option, these eye-catching masks offer three-ply protection with an inner filter layer.
As a top-seller on Amazon, these non-medical face masks have become a popular option for daily use. The three-layer design features an outer layer with non-woven fabric and center filtration layer. This latex-free disposable mask also has a moldable metal nose clip as well as flexible elastic ear loops for a comfortable fit.
While all surgical masks are considered face masks, not all face masks are considered surgical face masks.
Jay Woody, MD, chief medical officer, Intuitive Health
How do disposable face masks work?
In general, both disposable and reusable style face masks typically work in three ways:
- They protect those around the wearer. They prevent virus particles from going out into the air, decreasing the chance that someone infected with Covid will pass the virus on to another person, explained Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
- They help shield what the wearer breathes in. Face masks also block some particles from coming in to some extent.
- They keep wearers from touching their mouths. Masks help prevent wearers from touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth, said Jay Woody, MD, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a co-founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care.
Types of disposable face masks
When someone is talking about a disposable face mask, they are typically referring to one of three distinct types: a medical-grade disposable face, a non-medical grade disposable face mask or an N95 respirator.
Medical-grade disposable face masks
These are typically intended for single-use in a hospital setting, comprise three layers and aren’t airtight. This type of face covering is also known as a medical surgical mask and filters out large particles. They protect the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with splashes or sprays that might contain germs, explained Jeannie Kenkare, DO, chief medical officer and co-founder of PhysicianOne Urgent Care. Medical-grade disposable face masks are best used to protect others from the wearer potentially exposing them to Covid-19, according to Manisha Singal, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician and chief medical officer of Bridgepoint Hospital in Washington D.C, where she serves as an ICU critical care physician. Each layer of these medical-grade masks serves a distinct purpose, Singal explained:
- The outer layer typically has a non-toxic, water-repellant chemical polypropylene woven into it to protect against large droplet exposures.
- The middle layer will have an anti-bacterial filter.
- The inner layer is designed to absorb moisture from our breath and to minimize skin irritation.
“Medical-grade masks have both bacterial and particulate filtration efficacies of at least 95 percent,” she added.
Medical-grade disposable face masks aren’t recommended for the general public unless you or a loved one are in a high-risk category, the experts we consulted agreed, noting they instead should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.
N95 face masks
The N95 mask is a type of respirator, and although intended to be disposable, some healthcare professionals have been forced to reuse theirs during supply shortages. “It is stronger than a surgical mask and filters out 95 percent of small and large particles,” said Woody. “N95 masks are the strongest face masks available and do not need additional coverings.” N95 face masks do require a professional fitting and should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers whenever possible, experts told Shopping.
Non-medical disposable face masks
To help with the mass need during the pandemic, companies started making masks for the general public. These are available at stores like Amazon, Target and Walmart and look like surgical masks but have not been regulated or tested by the FDA, as they are not intended for use in hospital settings, explained Kenkare.
“They come in many varieties and of varying quality of fit and filtration,” she said. And they’re most likely what people consider when discussing disposable face masks. They typically come in two- or three-layer builds and are recommended for the general public over medical-grade face masks, according to multiple experts.
But remember, “while all surgical masks are considered face masks, not all face masks are considered surgical face masks,” Woody added.
We are in dire straits as a medical profession in terms of running out of them if non-medical people use those designated for medical professionals
Karen Jubanyik, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, co-author, ‘Beat the Coronavirus’
Should you get a disposable face mask?
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear cloth masks with at least two layers, this is nuanced out of caution for healthcare workers, experts said. “Some of this has to do with availability of paper masks for healthcare workers and many areas in the country having or having gone through periods of limited resources,” said Turner. However, many stores have since increased their supplies of non-medical masks, Turner added, noting they’re a fine option if available in your area.
“Disposable blue surgical-style masks seem to do a better job protecting the wearer and others nearby,” said Gregory Charlop, MD. “Research suggests higher rates of viral transmission with cloth masks compared with blue surgical masks.” The World Health Organization, for example, specifically recommends the use of medical-grade surgical masks if you are over 60, have underlying medical conditions, are feeling sick or are caring for an ill family member. However, experts we consulted agree that the general public should not shop for N95 respirators unless it’s absolutely necessary.
So that leaves you with non-medical, disposable face masks (and reusable fabric face masks). But which disposable face mask is the best disposable face mask?
The best analogy I saw on a poster at a school: Cloth masks are like underwear.
Karen Jubanyik, MD
Disposable face masks: Benefits
- Medical-grade disposable face masks are better than cloth masks at protecting others, if the person wearing them is infected. “There have been a number of studies looking at the efficacy of disposable masks. In terms of N95 and the three layered surgical masks, these performed the best, both in terms of the inhalation and exhalation of the virus,” said Déry.
- Disposable face masks help prevent cross-contamination. They help ensure you are always wearing a clean one instead of forgetting to wash it between wears. “The best analogy I saw on a poster at a school: Cloth masks are like underwear. Do not share them. Wash them everyday. Store dirty ones in a separate place from your clean stuff,” added Jubanyik.
- Damage from wear and tear is less of a concern. “There is less chance of degradation over time from physical stress to the mask and exposure to moisture from the mouth and nose,” said Chad Sanborn, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at KIDZ Medical Services.
- You don’t have to wash them before use.
- They don’t hold onto moisture. The moisture retention of cloth fabric, as well as its lower filtration, may result in increased risk of infection, according to Singal.
Disposable face masks: Limitations
- They create more waste since they can’t be reworn multiple times.
- Supplies may be limited in certain areas depending on local surges and shortages at medical facilities.
- They can end up being more expensive for the consumer since they are single-use.
You can reuse disposable face masks but you must do it the right way.
Gregory Charlop, MD
When to change a disposable face mask
Although these masks are intended to be worn once, that amount of time can be vastly different between wearers. If someone puts it on just for a quick grocery store trip, can they rewear it for another short outing the next day? Or if they are wearing it for a seven-hour shift, will it hold up the entire time?
Turner noted that the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommends throwing away a disposable mask if it becomes visibly dirty. “This is probably a situation where common sense rules — masks will become less protective once they are wet or dirty,” she said. “Using one per day is probably fine unless it's noticeably wet or dirty.”
However, the greatest risk to re-wearing a mask after a quick use (for both disposable face masks and cloth masks), is the chance of contaminating it in the act of taking it off or putting it back on. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worn a mask for minutes or hours if you contaminate it or yourself.
“You can reuse disposable face masks but you must do it the right way,” said Charlop. “Be sure to take it off by the straps, put it in a safe place and wash your hands. Wait a few days before reusing it, or put it in a paper bag and heat it with a blowdryer to kill any lurking viral particles.”
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