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Evaluating Masks in the time of COVID

Evaluating Masks in the time of COVID

By: Roxanne Halverson

OTTAWA, ONTARIO  ~~~~~~  November 26, 2020 (LSN)  I was out shopping recently. As Christmas season has arrived, the stores are decked out with an array of gift ideas for shoppers, and guess what the latest hot selling stocking stuffer is? Yep, COVID-19 masks in all types of colours, prints and designs. On a personal level I find it a bit disturbing that we have already reached such a state of normalcy regarding COVID and masks that people would actually consider giving them as Christmas gifts. On a more pragmatic level, I wonder if any thought is given to the efficacy of these “designer” or fashion masks when one is buying them.

CBC Marketplace wondered that too and decided to do some tests on the range of masks now available on the market, as well as home made models. They put over twenty types of masks through the rigorous National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) test, which is usually reserved for the N95 respirator and personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care professionals. While most tests are designed to measure how a mask can block particles released when the wearer coughs or sneezes, the Marketplace test also measured the quantity of particles the mask filters out when the wearer breathes in. As the virus can travel both ways and on smaller particles, Marketplace wanted to determine what types of mask can best protect the wearer in both regards.

Enough about the testing methods and objectives, let’s get to the important part--the results. The top two performers were three layered masks, one a white cotton mask (two layers) with an additional inner layer of polypropylene and the simple two-ply blue surgical (non-medical grade) mask with the same inner layer of polypropylene.

They were followed by two layer cotton and polyester masks with high thread counts (600 to 680). The worst performers were designer type masks made of rayon, decorated with sequins, the one layer one hundred percent cotton bandana and the one layer, one hundred percent polyester gaiter.


There was one mask the test results warned people not to use at all--those with valves, as air only moves through the valve filter when it comes in, but not when one exhales, thus dispersing particles into the environment. A number of government agencies have banned the use of valve masks, yet some of the federal security force at Canada’s Parliament appear to have been wearing valve masks while on duty, but have since switched to non-valve models.

A study published by Science Advances, a US-based peer-reviewed scientific journal, backs up the Marketplace findings, with the cotton polypropylene mask, and the two-ply blue surgical “non- medical” mask with the polypropylene additional layer coming out on top. It also found that bandanas are, at the least, not very effective, and at the worst, that the motion of the wearer might actually result in the mask shedding smaller droplets by breaking down larger droplets.  Fleece masks were also considered a huge no-no, as they can also do the same thing as the bandana, and just don’t have any real filtering capacity.

On October 20, Dr. Theresa Tam released new guidelines for what she described as non-medical masks, advising that all cloth masks should be tightly woven and have three layers including that polypropylene layer. Yet, no mention was made of the blue “surgical type” that was rated as a top performer by the Marketplace and Science Advances studies. The Health Canada website provides information and recommendations on cloth masks, indicating what the best ones should be made of, but it does not, however, make any recommendations regarding the “non-medical” blue surgical type masks. Such disposable masks can be purchased at a variety of retail outlets and on-line, so why are they not recommended as efficient protection on the Health Canada website?  Their wear does not seem to be promoted much by most Canadian politicians and public health officials as virtually all are seen wearing a cloth mask, usually black for some reason, and would supposedly contain that all important polypropylene layer.

The Health Canada website goes to great lengths giving instructions on how to make a mask, but nowhere does it discuss disposable masks, other than saying “medical grade” masks, including the N95 and “surgical masks” should be reserved for health care professionals. It does not, however, provide any clear definition of what a “medical grade” surgical mask is.

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US provides a much more comprehensive set of guidelines regarding masks and does include the blue “surgical type” mask as “highly recommended” on their website.

So that sums it up. If you are planning on buying any type of COVID mask as a stocking stuffer, or for yourself for that matter, you should check the labelling to determine what the mask is made of, the thread count if it is stated (if it’s a cloth mask) and whether it contains that polypropylene layer. Bandanas and gaiters, no matter how cool looking, are a no-no as not only do they not protect the wearer, they may also inadvertently spread smaller droplets into the environment. As for me, no one in my circle will be getting masks as stocking stuffers, and I am sticking to the “non-medical” grade, disposable surgical type mask with the polypropylene layer. This is partly because I view masking as a temporary measure so the idea of making a mask part of my wardrobe just doesn’t sit well with me. As well I have noticed that a lot of the cotton masks do not seem to fit well, they are too loose, or too heavy and I often see people adjusting them as they slip down their nose, something we have been told is a no-no. I will stick to my Marketplace recommended disposable mask, which has that handy wiring across the top that allows you to pinch it to your nose to stay put, but that’s just me. Happy mask shopping or making.   

By: Roxanne Halverson
Former TBT anchor and reporter
Living in Ottawa (retired RCMP Senior Emergency Management Planner

#LSN_Opinion #LSN_Health

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