Face Masks 101

In June 2020, Stuff by Tracy Jones

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With the coronavirus here to stay for the foreseeable future, we break down mask etiquette that will help keep us all safe. 

Raleigh teenagers Dylan and Connor Clark have gotten ahead of the curve in terms of one of the biggest changes we all can expect in our daily lives in the coming months: wearing masks. 

The brothers, both students at Cardinal Gibbons High School, launched CopperSAFE, a mask company that consists of copper-infused specialty fabric that are lightweight, breathable, reusable and worn around the neck. Copper is a naturally occurring antimicrobial, self-sanitizing element and the masks comport with CDC guidelines advising people to wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

“When out in public, we recognize the lack of proper facial coverings available to most people,” says Dylan, 14, CopperSAFE’s chief executive officer. “We were seeing people agitated with the masks they were wearing and wanted to come up with something easier, smarter and more comfortable.”

Connor, 16, the company’s chief marketing officer, says CopperSAFE wants to offer a variety of mask sizes to fit wearers of all ages. 

“When we first launched our website, we had 13 and under and adult,” Connor says. “We recently got an email from a grandmother who has a heart valve problem saying the mask was too small and too tight for her, so we made a mask for bigger people. We hope to help as many people as possible and our goal is to put a CopperSAFE mask around the neck of every American.”

CopperSAFE masks now come in three sizes and are made exclusively in North Carolina; they have already shipped to half of the 50 states.

To Mask or Not to Mask

There are differing opinions about mask wearing but medical professionals by and large side with the CDC. With myths and misinformation floating around, the dos and don’ts of wearing a mask can get confusing.

“This is an era of constant access to ‘news,’ where articles are debunked rather quickly and there is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Jessica Dixon, an infection prevention specialist at WakeMed. “The CDC guidance is what we should follow. If they say wear a mask when you’re close to people, then wear a mask when you’re close to people. This is not an airborne disease, but a disease spread by droplets. I have to get my secretions from my eyes, nose or mouth into your eyes, nose or mouth.”

Basically, if you are in an outdoor setting where you can’t social distance from people, then you should wear a mask. If you are walking down the street in your neighborhood, then no. 

“You need to use some common sense,” says Dixon. “Walking by somebody isn’t significantly dangerous, but if you’re hanging out with somebody, like in the pre-COVID world of concerts, then it might make sense to wear a mask. It’s not necessary when walking your dog.”

Dixon also highlights that the mask is there not to protect you from anyone else but to protect people from you. 

“It’s what the CDC calls source control,” says Dixon. “If the droplets from your mouth and nose can’t come out and get on anything, you can’t get anybody sick. If I keep something between my nose and mouth and your nose and mouth, that is containing secretions.”

As to wearing a mask habitually, Dixon says there are certain protocols to follow. First and foremost, wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off. Hold the mask by its ear loops if it has them, or ties. If you have a surgical mask, place the white side in with the colored side out. The white side absorbs liquid while the colored side repels it. Also, make sure the mask covers both your nose and mouth. If your mask gets wet, you need to change it because it’s not going to be as efficient of a barrier anymore.

“As much as we’ve been telling to people to wear masks, I don’t think we’ve done enough of telling people about hand hygiene and how to handle them,” says Dixon. “Masks are the best thing we have combined with social distancing to prevent transmission at the moment, but they don’t help if you don’t do it right. I cannot overemphasize the importance of hand hygiene. All of the masks in the world won’t do anything if you don’t keep your hands clean.”

Picking Your Mask

N95 masks are the most effective for keeping out particles but the CDC doesn’t recommend them for use by the general public; instead, N95 masks should be reserved for health care workers and medical first responders, as they continue to be in short supply.

Surgical masks are lightweight and disposable. They are not very effective in keeping particles out but help block large droplets from the wearer when they cough or sneeze. Each mask should be discarded after every use and should not be re-worn. 

There are different degrees of surgical masks and what you can order online may not be the same quality that you would find in the hospital.

“Anything that you purchase that doesn’t have ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) levels on it, I would treat just like a cloth face covering,” says Dixon. “These have multiple layers, but they can’t make any claims about protection, about filtration and fluid prevention. It’s impossible to judge the quality.”

Cloth face coverings don’t hold the same protection as surgical masks, but can still be effective as long as they are continuously laundered.

Making Your Own Mask

Even if you don’t know how to sew, you can make your own mask. Just check out YouTube and there are instructions of how to make masks using sheets, shirts and bandanas. If you can sew, there are more patterns and options available, with and without elastic since elastic is difficult to come by right now. Here’s how to make a mask using pillow cases:

No-Sew Pillowcase Masks

Materials: pillowcase, scissors, four hair ties.

Step One: Cut through each fold and up the center to make four pieces.

Step Two: Fold the bottom third up and the top third down. If you are using a patterned pillowcase, the pattern should be on the outside.

Step Three: Pinch the end and add one hair tie, fold the fabric over it and secure with a second hair tie. Repeat on the other side.

Do this with the three other pieces and you’ll have four masks.

Buying a Mask

Of course, if you aren’t the type of person to DIY, or if you just want a product better than what you could craft, there are many options for purchasing a cloth mask. From locals making masks from their homes to fashion designers adding some flair, there are different avenues you can explore.

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