A pulmonologist weighs in on which types of masks provide the best protection against COVID-19, from traditional face masks to winter scarves.
As we begin to brace for the colder weather, there’s a new article of clothing joining our fuzzy hats, warm scarves and fleecy gloves: face masks. While social distancing and outdoor activities may be more difficult in the winter months, we must continue to uphold the preventive measures that have kept us safer over the last several months, including washing our hands and wearing a mask.
To help us get a better understanding of the importance of wearing a mask in the upcoming months and how to wear one with our winter gear, we spoke with Dr. Jessica Most, director of outpatient services and pulmonologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Wear Your Mask Proudly
As we enter the colder months, the only way we will be able to continue interacting with others is by wearing a mask. “The reason masks are so important is because the virus can be spread by anyone, even those who aren’t showing symptoms yet. This means that we can’t depend on symptoms to be the sole indicator that someone is sick. Masks decrease the transmission of the virus regardless of if you have symptoms or not. They are the first line of defense in mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” says Dr. Most.
Finding the Right Mask
When purchasing your mask, it’s important to find one that fits your face properly—covering your nose and mouth without needing constant adjustment.
“A lot of people wear ill-fitting masks, which defeats the purpose,” says Dr. Most. “The more you touch the mask, the more you are inadvertently spreading the infection. So make sure it fits well and is comfortable so it’s easy to wear.”
The ideal mask should have at least two layers of washable fabric but preferably have three layers. Additionally, the mask should have no gaps on the sides and fit snugly around the nose and mouth. “If you’re wearing a mask that does not fit correctly, you could actually be spreading infected air particles behind you, infecting those in close proximity to you,” says Dr. Most.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges people to avoid wearing surgical masks and N95s as they are reserved for healthcare and front line workers. Dr. Most also recommends experimenting with different materials, such as cotton masks as well as cotton and polyester masks.
Evaluating Non-Traditional Mask Types
“Over the last several months, we have seen a variety of mask types pop up. From gaiters and face shields to people wondering if scarves are good mask supplements, the answer is and always will be a well-fitting face mask works best,” says Dr. Most.
- Neck gaiters: The effectiveness of neck gaiters has mixed reports. Although there are concerns that neck gaiters have an increased risk of aerosolizing particles, Dr. Most says if you are using a neck gaiter, it should be folded into at least three layers and have a tight-knit weave. She also recommends wearing a mask underneath.
- Face shields: The primary reason face shields should be worn is to protect the wearer from contracting viral particles through the mucous membrane in the eyes. According to Dr. Most, face shields should not be used as an alternative to face masks, but as a supplement.
- Scarves: Because scarves typically have a loose-knit, these would not be appropriate as a mask replacement.
In addition to picking the right mask, it’s also important to wash your masks on a regular basis. Dr. Most says to follow the “two H rule:” hot water and hot dryer.
“Wearing a mask is going to look a little different in the fall and winter than it did in the summer, but everything is going to look a little different and that’s okay. When it comes to getting ready to leave the house, be sure to put on your mask before you put on your winter hat. If you wear glasses, find a mask with a good nose wire to prevent fogging,” says Dr. Most. “If we do everything we’re supposed to, we can return to some semblance of our old lives soon. And as my kid says, wearing a mask in the winter is great because it keeps your nose warm! We just have to keep looking at the bright side.”