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About Face Masks, Respirators and Face Coverings

Face Masks have become part of our everyday lives, but most people do not know much about the styles, protections levels and theory behind wearing face masks.  There is a common social distancing guideline by the CDC to be 6 feet (1.83 m) or more apart for social distancing.  This is due to the COVID-19 virus in the air - the novel coronavirus is primarily spread by droplets from someone who is coughing, sneezing or even talking within a few feet away. But anecdotal reports hint that it could be transmissible through particles suspended in the air. After attending a choir practice in Washington State in early March, dozens of people were diagnosed with or developed symptoms of COVID-19 even though they had not shaken hands or stood close to one another. At least two died.

To visibly test how masks stop the spread of these droplets, an excellent test is the candle test.  Light a candle and put six feet away from you.  Without a mask, if you breathe hard or sneeze or sing, you will likely see the flame move.  You are spreading droplets.  However, to text the efficacy of a mask, put on one and do the same actions.  If the mask is sufficiently protective, you should not see the flame move. If you have a medical mask compared to a single layered poly mask (like a gaiter) you will see that there is likely no movement from the medical style mask and some movement from the thin mask, although even the thin masks will also reduce spread.

Face masks can be separated into many styles, but a simple list by level of protection is as follows:

  • N95 Respirator or Medical Face Masks
  • KN95 Face Masks
  • Surgical Style - 3 Layered Face Masks
  • Cotton Multi-Layered Face Masks
  • Cotton or Poly Single Layered Face Masks - Gaiters and Face Coverings

1.  N95 Respirators and Medical Face Masks

Medical Face Masks, or respirators, are known by medical personnel but are fairly unknown to the public prior to the advent of COVID-19.  Essential personnel are in need of protective medical masks, so these styles may not be necessary for the general public.  To make an educated purchase of these masks, below we will describe the styles of face masks, the relative protection to yourself and others, and what to consider when purchasing your face masks.

The N95 respirators or medical face masks are in short supply and should mainly be supplied to essential personnel including hospitals, nursing homes, and people transporting contagious personnel.  These masks have a minimum filtration rate of 95% and are used to actually filter out larger particles such as bacteria and viruses, like COVID-19.  When the pandemic started, there was an obvious shortage of these masks, and while supplies are beginning to catch up to demand, many medical personnel are having to reuse these masks which are meant to be disposable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19). Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

When purchasing these masks, you want to make sure they have proper certifications by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and if possibly the FDA.  Due to shortages, a waiver was put in place where medical personnel can use industrial N95 masks that have certifications such as NIOSH.

If you wear an N95 mask, you will notice they get quite hot and moist after a short time of use.  This is because they are restricting air flow to filter out viruses and bacteria, both when breathing in and out.  Due to this, if you are in a non-medical environment, they will get uncomfortable and can cause you to work harder to catch your breath.

2.  KN95 Style Medical Masks

KN95 are the medical masks commonly used in China and are almost all made in China.  Before the novel coronavirus, they were not used much in the US and not certified for medical use.  However, due to medical mask or respirator shortages, they are now allowed to be used medically if they have proper certifications.  Most hospitals and first line essential personnel, however, still prefer the N95 styles.  There were a spat of fake KN95 masks that were distributed initially, but we have reviewed our masks and suppliers, and we will not distribute masks that are not tested or made by a reputable factory.

KN95 masks have a similar performance and filtering range as the N95 masks and are good for non-medical personnel like dentists, dermatologists, nursing home personnel, etc.

3.  3-Ply or Surgical Masks

These masks offer around a 90% filtration rate if they are the certified FDA masks and offer excellent protection for both the public and personnel working in medical facilities that are not directly exposed to COVID-19 patients.  They are easier to breathe through, are generally looser fitting and made of 3 layers of protection.  These layers typically include: 

Outer Layer - Waterproof material prevents large particles and droplets from entering the mask.

Middle layer - Melt-blown non-woven synthetic fiber catches and clings to small particles.

Inner Layer - Non woven fabric provides a comfortable face cover.

On these masks, however, be careful.  Not all masks are built the same and many of the consumer models are not tested and are constructed in non FDA certified facilities.  You will see many of these masks sold on popular online sites and through other distributors.  We do not sell these masks as a general rule.  While any face covering is better than none, we strongly suggest using the FDA certified 3-ply mask styles over the cheaper models.

4.  Cotton and Poly Material Multi-Layered Masks

There have been several studies done on different materials for cloth style face masks, and many have shown that it is not simply the number of layers, but the material used.  Tight-knit cotton or tight-knit poly materials seems to have better filtering qualities than, and multiple layers tend to filter more.   A good rule of thumb is hold up your face mask to a bright light, and look through the mask.  If you can see direct light coming through, the material spacing is likely too large and likely is not a great filter.  But, no matter what, any face covering is better than no face covering.

Also, many of these now have a built-in or replaceable filtration layer.  These add more protection than just cloth.

One difference is, cotton or a cotton blend does tend to stay cooler than most poly fabrics and is more comfortable for all day use.  Also, the tightness of the seal around the edges of these masks matter!  Both by logic and studies, loose fitting masks will let more droplets in and out.  Make sure your masks are tight and safe!

One option on these is an external valve, which we have chosen not to offer.  Most of these masks are more made for smoke and dust prevention, and are not extremely effective on reducing viruses.  Also, there are not many well-made versions of these masks.

A new study by Florida Atlantic University has shown the following on Cloth Mask Protection and How Far Coughs Travel!

None8 Feet
Bandana3.6 Feet
Folded Handkerchief1.25 Feet
Commercial Cone Mask8 Inches
Stitch Mask, Two Layers2.5 Inches


5.  Single Layered Masks such as Gaiter or Face Coverings

Manufactured cloth has a thread pattern that can be closed and tight-knit or actually have significant spaces between threads for cooling effect.  Many of the gaiter styles masks have this construction, and using the rule previously mentioned, if you shine a bright light through the cloth, you can see these spaces.  The more space, the more particles come in and out of the mask.

There is, however, a use for these masks.  As repeatedly stated, any face covering is better than no face covering, both for you and those around you.  However, if you are hiking, running, biking or doing a strenuous workout, a medical or multi layered mask can hinder your breathing significantly and become very moist and heated.  Single layered masks are good for this purpose where, if you come in contact or have somebody near you during your workout, you can slip these one and lower the risk for both of you.  It is not ideal, but these face masks can still help.

Yes, we can split ship face masks to multiple locations, and yes we can print detailed gorgeous designs.