Almost overnight, masks of all shapes, colours and styles have appeared on the faces around us. We have drawn on multiple expert sources as well as our own expertise in clean air filtration to pull together a list of most common questions and answer about masks and their use. And remember by covering your face in public, you are helping others to stay safe from anything you may be carrying. It’s more about their protection than your own. “I care for me; I care for you”
The short answer is no! A mask is just one tool amongst many that should be used, such as regular hand washing, wearing additional forms of PPE such as visors and gowns and social distancing, in order to keep yourself safe.
Before putting on a mask, always wash or sanitise your hands first. If it’s a N95 or P2 mask that has a cup or foldable shape, use one hand to hold the open mask body against your face, and the other to pull the elastic head straps around your head, or to use it to secure earloops around your ears. The coverage area should go from near the bridge of your nose to down under your chin and stretch about halfway or more toward your ears. Adjust any straps or loops so that it fits as snugly as possible against your face. If it’s a surgical mask and has pleats, the folded side should be down, and the colour is generally blue on the outside. For either mask type, if there is a nose piece, press this around the bridge of your nose so it forms a seal around your nose.
When removing the mask, first clean your hands if possible. Then, only contact the ear loops or the head straps to securely remove the mask. Avoid contact with the fabric part of the mask — that is essentially the germ filter, and you don’t want to spread whatever germs it has trapped. Dispose of a used mask safely to not spread contamination. In hospitals, this will typically be via incineration otherwise bag the mask and dispose of it in a landfill. After disposing of the mask, wash or sanitise your hands again.
Note that any facial hair such as a beard will prevent a mask from effectively sealing onto the face and compromise protection.
In theory, fidgeting with a mask could introduce germs to your face, but if you’re touching your face that much, you are greatly increasing the risk of getting sick anyway. When a mask is worn, you should avoid from touching the mask as this risk getting any captured viruses onto your hands.
But the real worry about wearing a mask is that you start to believe it’s protecting you more than it really is. Behavioural studies show that when people begin to feel safe, they take more risks. When doctors wear decontamination gowns, studies show they may become laxer about safety protocols.
Masks do make us feel safer, but any benefit of wearing a mask will be quickly negated if we lose our resolve about social distancing and hand washing. Don’t start lingering in supermarkets or spending time with friends because you are wearing a mask. A mask alone will not protect you from the coronavirus.
Mask-wearing is not recommended for young children below the age of two for child safety reasons. Medical experts have also advised that some groups may have difficulties, including children with special needs and young children aged two and above, and masks should only be worn on medical advice and with adult supervision.
N95 or P2 respirator masks as they are known in NZ: This type of mask is in short supply globally and as such should be reserved for frontline staff. These masks are designed to an industrial workplace standard and fit very tightly to the face and have the highest filtration efficiency, blocking 95 percent of particles of 0.3 microns or larger. An N95 mask typically is used by frontline medical workers who come into contact with high doses of the virus while visiting and carrying out medical procedures on multiple patients. The rest of us don’t need that level of protection, so these masks should be reserved for frontline health and other workers only. These masks are characterised by a relatively high level of breathing resistance (especially at higher breathing rates), tight fit and as such can be very uncomfortable to wear for sustained periods and are not designed for children. Sometimes to reduce the high breathing resistance these masks will be fitted with an exhale valve in which case the mask will not protect others if the wearer is infectious.
Surgical masks (the square green or blue ones): These are also in short supply and sometimes called medical masks or procedure masks and are rectangular shaped coverings (often pleated) that come with elastic ear loops. Compared to the N95 mask, a medical mask filters about 60 to 80 percent of particles and, according to the FDA, mostly blocks “large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter that may contain germs.” Surgical masks are more comfortable to wear for prolonged periods, but provide reduced protection from a virus particle in the air as they do not provide an effective seal against the face. That being said, they do an adequate job in partially protect others from you if you are ill. They are being sold by the billions globally and are inexpensive.
Homemade fabric masks: The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we cover our faces with a mask when we are in public. An increasing number of countries are now recommending the general population wear masks in public and in places where social distancing is compromised. Due to the shortage of N95 and Surgical masks, this often means using a homemade mask. The effectiveness of homemade masks varies depending on the fabric used, the style and the fit.
In laboratory tests, some homemade masks did a poor job, while others rivalled the filtration of a medical mask. In community studies, homemade masks were found to offer increased protection during viral outbreaks compared with wearing nothing. At this time of the COVID19 pandemic, Lanaco has partnered with sewing communities to make a mask which can be supplied in large volumes, provides good protection and is made locally.
Medical masks should be saved for medical workers, but if you have a medical mask, you should know that it was designed for one-time use. However, a number of scientists, led by a group at Stanford University, are studying the best way to sanitize masks to extend the life of the personal protective equipment used by medical workers during the current shortage.
The problem is with washing or sanitizing processes on a medical mask is that there are various materials and technologies deployed in making the masks, and a cleaning process will typically compromise or degrade it, which will render the mask ineffective in protecting the user. The methods are typically developed for use in hospitals with specialist equipment and are not worth the effort or risk for home use.
Wearing a mask can send warm breath to your glasses and cause them to fog. Fogging may indicate that your breath is escaping the mask through the sides, rather than going through it, so is a sign that your mask may not be fitted correctly. Adjusting the mask for a tighter fit and squeezing the nose piece across your nose bridge tighter will usually help. As some of the fogging effects can be from air passing through the mask, various anti-fog treatments for lenses can be helpful.
You must understand that any mask will have some level of restriction, especially at higher breathing rates, for example, when exerting yourself or exercising. N95 type masks particularly feature higher breathing resistance as a result of their very high filtration efficiency. Lanaco’s HELIX ™ filtration is designed to provide high levels of filtration with lower breathing resistance.
Some masks will use exhalation valves that ‘dump’ heat, water vapours and CO2; the quicker the better. Exhalation valves do not stop you from potentially passing germs or infection to others, however.
Traditionally filtration media has been based on oil-based synthetic materials. The Helix™ Filter Media is the result of Lanaco’s years of research and development in the creation of the world’s most breathable, multi-functional air filter. Designed to capture harmful particulate matter, it harnesses the unique organic properties of New Zealand wool to achieve incredibly good results – so good it has even been selected for protecting astronauts in the next manned mission to the moon and beyond. The science which has been developed for the HelixTM Filter Technology builds on the strong properties of the wool fibre to be electrostatically charged. This wool has been selected through a scientific genetics breeding programme using bred-for-purpose New Zealand sheep to optimise filtration characteristics of our wool.
Helix™ Filter Technology is used in all of Lanaco’s filter formulations. Whilst a 100% organic material is our objective, synthetic additives are currently used to create hybrid formulations that obtain the best performance possible.
Advantages of HelixTM Filter Media include:
Our HELIX.iso™ community mask initiative uses a specially developed formulation which sees Lanaco joining with community sewing groups across New Zealand. The goal is to supply an open-source mask design that can be locally produced, but unlike a typical cloth mask, is fitted with high-performance HELIX.iso™ filters for enhanced protection. This initiative is designed to not only provide rapid deployment of quality protection but can also support communities with employment and the positive feelings of self-help.
The downloadable open-source mask body was originally designed by HK Mask, but differs by offering a highly effective filter with significantly lower breathing resistance. The filter element that can be put into the mask body is called HELIX.iso™. Users can fit and replace the element as often as possible but have an inexpensive, easy breathing mask body which can be made safe by being washed regularly. All contaminated filter elements are disposed of safely and should not be re-used. See https://www.lanaco.co.nz/index.cfm/products/covid-19-masks/helix-iso-filter/ for more detail.
It is not an N95 mask. N95 refers to a safety standard for industrial use. These are in short supply and are typically more expensive. They can be uncomfortable and unsuitable for people with breathing difficulties, for individuals under exertion, or for children (There are no protection standards for children). It is also not a surgical mask, but as the mask body for the mask seals against the face better it will provide a better level of protection than a loosely fitted surgical mask. The breathing resistance of the element is lower than that of a surgical mask, which makes breathing comfortable. Research shows that a comfortable, easy breathing mask will be used more often - and for longer - than one that is hard to breathe through. If made and correctly fitted the mask seals around the face securely and removes more than 80% of 0.3-micron particles at normal breathing rates.
It is not recommended that you reuse HELIX.iso™ filters. They should be replaced after any extensive exposure and we recommend a change at least once a day. Treat a used filter as you would a used mask. Refer to How to safely put a mask on and take one-off for handing instructions.
Using anything else will compromise the effectiveness of the filter and your safety. Some similar products around the world use vacuum cleaner bags, coffee filters or kitchen towels. These are very hard to breathe through and/or perform very poorly as a filter against a virus. When you order a mask from your distributor with HELIX.iso™ it will come with a safety sealed replacement element pack of 7 filters, with additional packs available separately. HELIX.iso™ Filters are manufactured in New Zealand under quality-controlled conditions with New Zealand’s only respiratory filter test laboratory on site.
In addition to having a lower initial breathing resistance, wool filters are less likely to feel “wet” which is a common reason for wearers discarding masks during prolonged wear. Wool fibres can manage moisture which prevents the build-up of bacteria growth much better than synthetics. Unlike synthetic fibres, wool fibres have a hydrophilic (water absorbing) core that can absorb up to 35% of its own weight in moisture before developing wetness.
When the environmental conditions become drier, the retained moisture will vaporise, but the electrostatic characteristics and complex structure of the wool fibre in Helix™ based masks or filters mean that any viable virus will remain trapped in the mask or filter. It is important that HelixTM based masks or filters are discarded on a regular basis, especially if exposed to potentially high virus loads, preferably at least once a day. Always remember to remove a used mask or filter safely.
It’s much easier to clean a fabric mask than a medical mask because you can thoroughly wash the mask body. The CDC recommends fabric masks be washed regularly. This can be done by washing masks daily in a machine or a sink using regular laundry soap. Masks can then be dried in a dryer or be allowed to it air dry. Although it’s not necessary, you may also go over it with a hot iron for a full assault on any germs that might remain, depending on the fabric used.
Chemicals like bleach or hydrogen peroxide may degrade the fabric used to make the mask, so its use is not necessary. Experts note a virus can’t replicate outside the body, and if virus particles have been trapped by the mask, they are pretty well stuck there and will decay or be removed during washing.
The fabric community mask also comes with an in-built aluminium nose piece. It is recommended that the masks are not folded too tightly flat/shut as this reduces the strength of the nose piece and can also distort it out of shape.