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Facing the Truth: Combatting the Pandemic with Cloth Masks

By: Sharlene Nguy

As we continue our daily lives during this global pandemic, the emotional toll of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear continues to plague all of our minds. We now live in a normalized routine of distancing ourselves from others and living in isolation. The need to wear protective covering and following safe hygienic safety protocols are emphasized and enforced more than ever. Wearing a face mask in public is important in preventing the spread of COVID-19. When it comes to face masks, a common misconception about cloth masks is that it’s dangerous and not as effective as surgical masks. In reality, cloth masks have the potential to be just as effective as surgical masks when made and handled correctly.

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To begin, the purpose of wearing face masks is to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Despite not showing any symptoms of COVID-19, it is still possible to have the virus. So, in order to prevent the spread, wearing a face mask allows the wearer to contain respiratory droplets that are emitted while talking, sneezing, or coughing. During this time, it is important to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands and frequently washing your hands with soap and water. It doesn’t stop at wearing face masks but also keeping a safe six feet social distance from other people who are not from your household.

         When it comes to face masks there are three main different types. There is the N95 mask, the surgical mask, and a cloth mask. The different levels of masks are appropriate for different situations and needs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), critical personal protective equipment like surgical masks and N95 masks should be reserved for healthcare workers who come in direct and indirect contact with COVID-19 patients. Cloth masks are recommended for the general public and non-patient settings since it is not medical grade and unsuitable to use in a medical environment.

Since cloth masks are not medical grade, the doubt surrounding the usage is that it does not help with preventing the spread of COVID-19. But, according to testing that was done earlier this year in April by researchers at the Manufacturing Development Center at a part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The potential of filtration that is provided by cloth masks is 79% whereas the filtration that surgical masks provide is 62% to 65% and N95 masks provide 97%.

Sharlene Nguy

This does not mean that any cloth masks are sufficient enough, the cloth masks must reach a certain criterion to provide up to 79% of filtration. The mask must have two layers of high-quality quilters woven cotton that has a thread count of 180 or more. It also mentions that a cloth mask with a double layer of simple cotton and an inner layer of flannel performed well (the filtration percentage was not mentioned). Cloth masks that consist of a single or double layer of lower quality cotton did not provide any significant filtration.

There are many websites that offer instructions on how to make a cloth mask. A guideline was released by John Hopkins Medicine on how to make a cloth mask and recommends the usage of a 100% pre-washed woven cotton fabric. While it is understandable that not everyone can afford/access high-quality quilters woven cotton, a good alternative that also provides a sufficient amount of filtration would be 100% cotton/linen bed sheets or pillowcases. Oftentimes, 100% cotton sheets have a thread count ranging from 200 to 800. A rule of thumb is that more layers for a face mask equate to more filtration and protection.

Many small businesses are now selling face masks that include three layers, 100% cotton, and a filter. So, it really depends on your financial situation to decide on whether or not you rather make your own facemask or purchase from small businesses. While cloth masks are a good way to be more sustainable since they can be constantly reused after safe washing methods and support small local businesses, it is understandable that it is difficult to practice sustainability during this pandemic.

In the end, cloth masks also provide protection for the general public during this pandemic despite not being medical grade. Of course, the outcome of protection that a cloth mask provides depends on the make-up of the mask, how it is handled after wearing it, and washing the mask. We hope that everyone is staying safe during this pandemic.  

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