Cloth face masks are being banned and medical-grade masks are being required in certain parts of the world, but will American governments and companies also ban cloth masks and require the use of surgical masks?
Fast Company and Travel and Leisure report several European governments and airlines like Finnair, Air France, Lufthansa, Swissair, Croatia Airlines, and LATAM Airlines have banned the use of cloth masks and have mandated that people wear either N95 masks or surgical masks -- along with banning masks that have exhaust vents or valves.
“Fabric masks are slightly less efficient at protecting people from infection than surgical masks,” Finnair said in a statement.
So far, France has made public mask-wearing mandatory and recommends that individuals use disposable surgical masks or N95 masks. In Germany and Austria, people are required to wear filtering facepieces (FFP) (which is similar to the filtration system in an N95 mask) while riding public transit, while at work, and while in retail and grocery stores. German officials said in a statement that surgical and medical masks provide more protection and cloth masks "are not subject to any standards with regards to their effectiveness.”
In America, the CDC has yet to follow suit and begin only recommend that people wear surgical masks. (Get the CDC's latest mask-wearing guidance here.)
Dr. Christian L’Orange, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University whose lab studies the effectiveness of masks, notes the effectiveness of a mask is often linked to how closely it fits the face. “The most effective cloth masks are made from tightly woven materials and have a close seal on your face,” L’Orange says.
According to an EPA test, N95 masks prevent at least 95 percent of airborne particles, surgical masks with ties that provide a close fit on the face provide 71.5% filtration, surgical masks with ear loops provide only 38.1% filtration, and 3-layer knitted cotton mask blocked 26.5 percent of particles. The EPA also notes wearing a mask with a nose wire dramatically improved the effectiveness.
Fast Company notes many cloth masks available are not tested and not required to meet a specific standard of filtration. If you are wearing a cloth mask, the CDC recommends:
- Wear a mask with multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
- Use a mask with a nose wire
- The mask should block light when held up to a bright light source
- Not wearing masks with exhalation valves or vents
- Not wearing a mask with a single layer or made of thin fabric that doesn’t block light