Masks Are Not All Created Equal


Masks have become the newest fashion accessory. My wife was given three masks recently as a hospitality gift from another woman. They came in three different colors and patterns so she could match them with various outfits. She’s already thinking about which one to wear on Thanksgiving.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Covid pandemic when we were first told by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams that we didn’t need masks. Today, we can be escorted out of stores and restaurants if we’re not wearing one. But does it matter which kind of mask we wear?

Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, says it does. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Gottlieb says many Americans could protect themselves better if they simply bought a better mask. Not all masks are created equal and therefore not all masks provide the same protection.

Gottlieb says, “A cotton mask offers far less protection than a surgical mask. If a cloth mask is all you can find, buy a thick one. Snug-fitting masks made of cotton-polyester blends will generally offer more protection. But even a very good cloth mask may only be about 30% protective; scarf or bandanna, 10% or less.”

“A surgical mask could offer you better protection, on the order of 60%. But here again, quality matters. Many of the masks sold on Amazon, which say they are for dust and allergens, aren’t surgical masks, even though they look like the blue masks worn by nurses and doctors. A real medical-procedure mask will be cleared by the FDA and designated as offering one of three levels of protection. Generally, a level 2 or level 3 medical mask is best.”

If you want even greater protection, consider an N95 mask, which when used properly, will filter out at least 95% of infectious particles. These must be properly fitted to be effective and they cost more. Equivalent masks are sold in China under the designation KN95 and in Europe as FFP2. These masks have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA and have been tested to show they offer comparable protection to the N95 mask. Beware of counterfeits that claim equivalent protection but have not undergone rigid testing.

The cost of masks is declining after exorbitant prices during the early pandemic days. The normal cost of surgical masks before the pandemic was about 20 cents per mask. During the early pandemic, when shortages were widespread, I was forced to pay more than $1.00 per mask. Just yesterday I found the same masks on sale for about 16 cents each.

The N95 masks may sell for $5 or more per mask. But they may be worth the investment if you find yourself often in high-risk environments. These masks can be reused if properly disinfected. The Department of Homeland Security has published instructions online on disinfecting and reusing N95 masks that can extend their life.

Masks are a necessary reality of our lives today, though this will likely change once the vaccines are widely distributed. With three successful vaccines already in the pipeline, the world can look forward with optimism to a time soon when masks will not be necessary. Until then, find a mask you’re comfortable wearing and wear it when necessary. But remember, not all masks are created equal.

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