Face masks are once again in the spotlight for health reasons, thanks to the surge in the highly contagious Delta variant and the new CDC mask guidance—to wear one in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor areas, even if you’ve been vaccinated.
Now that it’s clear that the Delta variant is not only the predominant strain in the U.S. but is much more contagious than previous coronavirus forms, many people are wondering if their mask is up to the task of protecting them.
Do you need to upgrade your mask now? Here’s the latest on what has and hasn’t changed, and why a good mask is so important now.
First of all, the particles and the size of the virus hasn’t changed. So your mask doesn’t need to be filtering out a different size and type of virus particle.
What’s different now, is that “the Delta variant produces higher viral loads (more virus coming out of infected folks) and appears to have a lower infectious dose (fewer virons required to infect someone),” Matthew Ferrari PhD, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at The Pennsylvania State University, explained by email.
So just as you want better rain protection with the more rain that’s coming down, you want a really good mask now that the viral load is bigger. Ferrari says the Swiss cheese metaphor is a good one: “Each layer of prevention [that you take] is like a slice of Swiss cheese—there are holes in any one, but if you stack a bunch together, you’re likely to cover up the holes and have a pretty solid barrier.”
The vaccine gave people a slice of Swiss cheese with only a few small holes. “With the Delta variant, it’s like we’ve swapped that out for a slice with bigger holes. And so we need to add a couple more layers of protection to get back to where we were pre-Delta. Masks are a good way to do that, especially if you’re going to be indoors for prolonged periods,” he says.
What kind of mask protects you best from the Delta variant?
The hierarchy of protection hasn’t changed; this is how common masks rank in protection, starting with the highest:
N95 and KN95 masks
These are still the most protective. These are the medical PPE that were in short supply throughout much of 2020. (If you’re not sure of the difference between N95 and KN95, find out more here.) “The reason they’re more effective is because they have a closer fit than other face coverings and offer better filtration,” explains Lexie Sachs, textiles director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, who is also a member of the committee at ASTM—an international organization that develops safety and performance standards—that creates filtration standards.
It’s often quoted that these are designed to protect doctors from blood and other body fluids (they are) but what sometimes gets overlooked in the discussion is that they protect you from aerosols (which coronavirus is spread through), too, Sachs explains. Even high-filtering masks won’t be as effective if the fit isn’t good, though, and sometimes fit is an issue with these. One way around it: Use a surgical mask with a cloth mask over it. “This is what I do to get the filtering benefit of the surgical mask and the adjustable fit of the cloth mask over top,” Ferarri says. (This hack is another way to make your surgical mask fit better.)
Here’s where things have changed. How well your cloth mask filtered out coronavirus particles used to be kind of a gamble. One way to get a better mask was to choose one with a changeable filter inside—“in general, filter inserts will offer better filtration than woven or knit fabrics alone,” says Sachs. “Unlike fabric, they have randomly-oriented fibers so they’re able to filter particles better.”
But now there’s a way to actually know if your cloth mask is doing a good job: the ASTM just created standards for cloth masks. So if a mask you’re buying says it “meets ASTM F3502,” then it meets standards for filtration, breathability, and leakage, to name a few (see a full explanation here).
Keep in mind that these standards are new, so the market isn’t yet flooded with options that say they meet them—companies may not have had time to produce them yet. Ones meeting these standards may also be slow to market because the companies themselves need to put money behind getting them tested, and some may not be willing to, explains Sachs.
But there may be products trying to cash in on acting like they meet these standards. So if a cloth mask says “certified’ or “approved by” ASTM, pass it up. “The language indicated by the standard is ‘meets ASTM F3502,’ so be skeptical of any other language,” Sachs explains.
There’s another reason you might need a new mask
Your old one is worn out. “If you’ve been wearing and washing the same cloth face mask for over a year, it may be worn out and less protective. Just because they’re reusable doesn’t mean they’ll offer the same protection over time,” says Sachs.
A good mask is a good thing but…
“No single method of prevention is perfect. While the vaccines have exceeded all of our initial expectations, Delta has knocked them down a notch,” Ferrari says. “Delta moved the goalposts, so we need to change our strategy. So use multiple layers of protection—vaccine, mask, and maybe think twice about whether you need to go to that music festival this year.”
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