In March, everyone had to make a sudden addition to their daily wardrobe: masks. As students and professors prepare to enter the lecture hall, masks and physical distancing will be the norm, so what masks should students wear?
According to Prof. Juan Hinestroza, fiber science and apparel design, the mask that is best for you is the one you will wear.
“Any mask is better than no mask, that is the reality,” Hinestroza said “The mask should be comfortable, because if it’s not comfortable you will take it off.”
Long before the pandemic, mask wearing was common in some countries — particularly in east Asia. Mask wearing became common practice following the SARS outbreak in 2002, and the trend continued as a way for sick people to protect others. In some countries, masks also serve as a way to protect people from air pollution.
However, the goal of these masks, like the bright blue surgical masks or white KN-95s, is to protect the wearer from outside particulates. During the age of a coronavirus outbreak, the purpose of a mask is the exact opposite.
“Now, the problem that we have with the virus is the opposite. It will not protect you from outside to the inside,” Hinestroza said. “The main objective is to protect what is going from the inside [of the mask] to the outside. In that case, any mask may help.”
The point of the mask, in terms of COVID-19, is to hug the user’s nose and mouth, to shield others from any droplets or liquid that could come from the user. For those not in a medical setting, reusable masks made of cotton or other woven materials will suffice in reducing the spread of droplets and liquids from the user, according to Hinestroza.
Reusable masks are made with various numbers of layers. With each added layer comes added protection, but it will also hinder the user’s ability to breathe.
“It’s a balance. You can be totally protected, but you cannot breathe, that’s not a very good situation,” Hinestroza said. “The other situation is you can be unprotected and you can breathe. That is also not a very good situation, so you have to have a careful balance between those two points.”
This balance looks different for different individuals. While added layers offer better protection for others, some may struggle to breathe in masks more than others. For example, those with respiratory issues may need a thinner mask to breathe more easily and those with glasses may encounter issues with their glasses fogging up.
According to Hinestroza, masks need to be comfortable and convenient for people because then they’re more likely to consistently wear the mask.
“No matter how effective a mask is in a lab, if it is not comfortable it will have to deal with human factors — people would not like to wear that for longer periods of time,” Hinestroza said.
What a comfortable mask looks like isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Everyone has different facial dimensions, so masks will fit differently on everyone. The material of the mask and where the loop of the mask sits can also impact an individual’s comfort.
Most masks hang from one’s ears, but the pressure of a mask pulling on the ears can be less tolerable for some. In this case, Hinestroza recommended cutting the strap and using extra string or shoelaces to tie the mask behind the head.
“I think the best mask is the one that you make yourself, because nobody knows you better than yourself,” Hinestroza said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General have resources on making masks quickly and effectively. Hinestroza also pointed out that masks will likely be part of the status quo for the near future, so having a good, comfortable mask that one can wear for an entire day is important.
A KN95 or surgical mask are also viable options if those are the most comfortable for an individual, but it is important to consider what happens to these masks after they are used.
Disposable masks are ideally not intended to be used multiple times, and once they are thrown out they present two dangers. One, if an individual is sick and they throw out a used mask, it could become a potential vector for infection. There is also an environmental cost of using disposable masks, especially because they are not biodegradable and will end up in landfills.
Cornell gave students a welcome kit, which included two reusable, cloth face masks. These masks came under fire because students said they were uncomfortable and easily allowed individuals to blow air through the mask.
— vivian jiang (@Vivid_Vivian) August 25, 2020
Despite these flaws, if these masks are comfortable to an individual, then they are perfectly appropriate for students going to lecture, Hinestroza said.
One method of testing the efficacy of masks that circulated the internet was attempting to blow out a candle while wearing a mask. While this can indicate how much a mask can slow down air passing through the mask, it doesn’t accurately represent the breathing pattern one has throughout most of the day.
Overall, Hinestroza said such tests may help show the flow of air through a mask, one should use them cautiously.
Listen to Bill Nye. pic.twitter.com/F34Ke3xlsC
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) July 9, 2020
“I think it’s good because it brings awareness of what happens when you breathe, but at the same time the test needs to reflect the reality of the situation,” Hinestroza said. “So if you are running 100 meters then maybe that’s the case, but if you are just watching Netflix, maybe not.”