The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has made wearing masks an integral part of our daily lives. Since then, the debate of using cloth masks has existed. Scroll down this article to know about the history, efficacy, advantages, disadvantages, and factors to consider while choosing and wearing cloth face masks.
Healthcare workers and people in the community use masks to protect themselves from several kinds of respiratory infections, especially COVID-19. Medical-grade masks, cloth masks, and respirators are available to protect against these infections. Both medical and community people use medical masks to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases from asymptomatic persons and sick people. On the other hand, respirators are primarily used by healthcare professionals and are designed to fit into the face and protect from respiratory function.
Early in 2020, when the pandemic hit us, there was a great demand for surgical masks or medical-grade masks and respirators. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States recommended people to manufacture cloth masks from readily available household items and start using them. This led the medical professionals, affected individuals, and those in close proximity to them to use surgical masks to a greater extent, who are the high-risk group for contracting the disease. Also, speculation about extending the use or employing the reuse of disposable masks, sterilizing the respirators, or resorting to using cloth masks took over.
Let us discuss cloth masks in detail.
Even before the pandemic, hospitals employed masks made from various materials like gauze, cotton, and other fabrics in the twentieth century. The medical staff who used two to three layers of masks made from gauze showed fewer cases of respiratory infection. Cloth masks, in particular, were used for protection against scarlet fever and diphtheria. After the advent of surgical masks, the use of masks made from cotton or gauze rapidly declined; however, its use was still prevalent in the Asian population. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 in China, the use of cloth masks by the health care workers and the common people gradually increased.
A randomized control trial performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015 depicted that the spread of infections was higher in people who used cloth masks. It was performed by comparing the efficacy of the cloth mask with surgical masks and a control group that followed the standard practice method. During this study, four weeks were taken into consideration, and five cloth masks were given, which were made locally and had two layers.
The participants were asked to wash the masks with soap and water. It was attributed that the poor protection offered by cloth masks might be due to infrequent washing or using moist and contaminated cloth masks. The CDC has conducted a series of studies to determine the efficacy of cloth masks. The results of all tests indicated that the efficacy of cloth masks was less as compared to that of the surgical masks and respirators. The filtration effectiveness of cloth masks depends on several factors, which include the following:
Number of layers.
Type of fabric.
A study was conducted to determine the ability of household cloth masks against viral and bacterial aerosols. It was found that although the efficacy was reduced in cloth masks as compared with surgical masks, the cloth masks made from household cloths, cotton, and towels had better protection than gauze masks. The use of nylon stockings in the cloth masks variably increases the filtration effectiveness. On the other hand, a wet and moist mask has decreased filtration effectiveness.
CDC gave out updated guidelines on cloth mask usage in January 2022, stating that loosely worn cloth masks do not provide enough protection against COVID-19 like the surgical masks and N95s do.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is mainly transmitted by close contact with the infected person and respiratory aerosol inhalation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised using respirators in high-risk situations and during procedures that involve the production of aerosols. Respirators are highly recommended for frontline workers. In case of a shortage of respirators, medical professionals can use medical masks; however, the infection spread rate increases in such cases. The decontamination and reuse of respirators are also considered in some countries. Due to the shortage of surgical masks or respirators, cloth masks are used by some medical professionals. In these circumstances, the use of multilayered, water-resistant masks with a more delicate weave and a high number of threads is highly recommended to prevent the risk of infection spread. Also, the fit of the mask should be ensured so as not to allow the flow of air through the gaps.
In areas where the risk of infection transmission is high, the use of universal face masks should be advised. To prevent the demand for surgical masks, the general public can use cloth masks as an alternative. Also, the removal and decontamination procedures while using cloth masks play an important role in preventing the spread and increasing the efficacy of cloth masks. Improper removal of cloth masks may result in self-contamination and may increase the risk of infection spread. Cloth masks can be decontaminated by washing with soap and hot water, applying dry heat, ultraviolet radiation, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, autoclaving, or microwaving. It is advised to wash the mask once it becomes wet or dirty, or atleast after a day’s use.
What Are the Advantages of Cloth Masks?
Large quantities can be produced in a short time.
Degradation of cloth masks is unlikely.
The filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is reduced as compared to surgical masks and respirators.
Improper decontamination of used masks may result in self-contamination.
If used in a hospital setting, the extra work of decontaminating the cloth masks is present.
According to research by the CDC, the use of double masks, including a surgical mask and a cloth mask (to limit the air leakage and provide contoured fit), or the use of tightly-fitting surgical masks, helps reduce the chance of infection to about 96.5 %.
Adequate knowledge about the quality, method of usage, and decontamination of cloth masks to the public is necessary to prevent the spread of infection. Also, the public should be taught about how to select the cloth masks so that they do not have a false sense of protection. When cloth masks are used, it is always advisable to use double masks, properly remove and decontaminate them to avoid self-contamination.
Last reviewed at:
26 May 2022 - 4 min read
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