Are we damaging our health by wearing masks on a regular basis? Or are the rumours just myth and fear? Here are the best materials for your mask to be made of.
The new normal, as many are labelling our reality since most lockdowns have been lifted, entails us wearing masks in varying degrees in public spaces. Many people are concerned that there may be negative health effects from wearing a mask for long periods of time each day. Especially those who must wear them at all times during the working day. This raises concerns for parents whose children may return to school but be required to wear a mask for lengthy periods of time.
Some fears have arisen claiming that the mask-wearing may weaken our immune systems, that inhaling our own carbon dioxide may be harmful, and even cause CO2 poisoning. Another claim is that some types of masks are not actually effective, and others feel anxious and suffer panic attacks when wearing them, so we need to look into which are the best for our health as well as most efficient.
First of all the idea that wearing a mask will weaken our immune system is not one that is supported by science. The concern arises from the theory that wearing a mask prevents microbes from getting out of your body and passing to others, and surely then it also prevents microbes getting IN to our systems and therefore we are receiving less and less challenges to our immune system, and eventually this will reduce its effectivity. However, the reason for the masks in the first place is not to prevent microbes coming in or out, it is to prevent droplets excreted by us transmitting to another person or surface which a person may touch. It is also serves to prevent us from touching our faces in case we may have picked up the virus from a surface. The mask doesn’t prevent the transmission of microbes, only droplets – and not all are effective even in that.
That wearing a mask can cause carbon dioxide poisoning, or ‘hypercapnia’, is also an unsupported claim and not possible. The memes and graphics that appeared all over social media putting added doubts into the public’s minds regarding mask wearing, were simply born out of fear and lack of evidence. That increased levels of carbon dioxide entering the system can cause many negative symptoms is not going to occur due to wearing a face covering. It is a rare occurrence with or without a mask and not something we ought to be worrying about.
Then comes the question as to which masks are the most effective in preventing the spread of the virus. It is being recommended that people refrain from using those (N95s) which would be needed in medical centres and hospitals to prevent a lack of them where they are most needed. The ones that resemble the surgeons masks are less effective as they are fairly loose fitting and so reduce the effectivity of the passing of droplets in or out. Also disposable masks are actually rather negative towards the environment, which is becoming evident as we see them discarded on the roadsides as well as washed up on the shores. So, if we are making our own or buying a cloth version from a store, which materials are the most comfortable, breathable and effective?
Researchers claim that a combination of good quality cotton and natural silk will effectively restrict aerosol particles from passing in or out. There are a varying range of sizes, but aerosol particles are the smallest droplets that we can excrete from exhaling, talking, sneezing or coughing, and so if these can be prevented from being transmitted then so can all the rest. During a test by the University of Chicago, researchers tested a variety of different materials and their effectiveness at preventing varying sized particles – from 10 nm to 6 μm in diameter – from passing through the fabric. Aerosol particles were blown using a fan across the fabric samples at a similar rate to respiration and then the size and amount of particles were measured before and after passing through the fabric. The optimum combination of material was shown to be tightly woven cotton and two layers of polyester-spandex chiffon which filtered between 80-99% of aerosol particles, this closely matches the performance of the N95 mask. Replacing chiffon with natural silk or flannel had very similar results. The cotton works to act as a barrier to the particles and the silk/chiffon/flannel serves as an electrostatic barrier. The combination of the two provides excellent restriction for the protection of transmission of COVID-19.
This efficiency will be greatly compromised however if the mask is ill-fitting, so the mask needs to fit snugly around the face, covering both the nose and mouth with minimal openings and exposure to the air. Otherwise unfiltered air can be inhaled from the sides or other openings. It is suggested to avoid masks with a frontal valve as they release unfiltered air which, if infected, can transmit to others.
Bottom line: Wearing a mask helps to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, if we stick to the sanctions in place and wear them when deemed necessary let’s hope we can help to keep this pandemic to a minimum. Combine a good-fitting mask with hand-washing and social distancing, and hopefully we are on the right track to a better normal.
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