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Cloth Face Masks – Do they work and should I wear one?

Updated: Jul 2

Do they work?

There has been a lot of news around recommendations on wearing cloth masks in the past weeks as COVID-19 continues to spread around the world. Reversing prior advice, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending everyone wear cloth face masks in public settings such as pharmacies and grocery stores. The CDC suggests this new advice is primarily designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission from those who may be unaware they have the disease. The CDC recommends two layers of tightly woven 100 percent cotton fabric.


What is the research that backs up this recommendation on wearing of cloth masks? Cambridge University researchers published an editorial in the British Medical Journal revealing “that cloth masks may be only marginally (15%) less effective than surgical masks in blocking emission of particles, and fivefold more effective than not wearing masks.” They conclude that, “cloth masks are likely to be better than wearing no mask at all.”


Babak Javid, an infectious disease consultant from Cambridge Universities Hospitals NHS Trust says, “Wearing masks is primarily to protect others, as well as offering some degree of protection to the wearer.” They concluded that masks made from cotton t-shirts struck the best balance between filtration and breathability.


In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Michael Toole said new research had proven the case for masks. “The effectiveness of masks reducing transmission is now really clear,” he said.


It is also worth considering that not all cotton is the same. Organic cotton has no chemical retentions thus people with allergies or with specific chemical sensitivity will greatly benefit, particularly as it is cotton you’ll be breathing through. Even if you don’t suffer from allergies or chemical sensitivities, organic cotton feels better on your face because it is softer due to the longer fibres of organic cotton.


But Should I Really Wear One?

With the shortage of medical grade masks and the need for health workers to be prioritized, the question then is should I wear a mask at all if it means our doctors and nurses and front line workers might then have to do without? Because cloth face masks won’t be used by health professionals, there is no guilt-factor when walking around town in one like there would be wearing an N95 respirator or surgical mask.


For countries that previously experienced a serious virus in their communities such as SARS, the bird flu or H1N1, the wearing of masks in public is a common sight. Now, masks are becoming the norm in all countries experiencing the affects of Covid 19.


The Cambridge University researchers suggest wearing of cloth masks should be adopted by everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team argues the potential benefits of this behavior far outweigh any of the suggested downsides. Nicholas Matheson, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease says, “as we prepare to enter a ‘new normal’, wearing a mask in public may become the face of our unified action in the fight against this common threat, and reinforce the importance of social distancing measures.”

General Advice

If you do decide to wear a mask, remember to do so in combination with this general advice:

· Practise good hygiene such as washing your hands often with soap and water, using alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

· Try to avoid touching your face especially eyes, nose and mouth. The benefits of masks are decreased if you are having to touch your face often to adjust it, so be sure to find masks that are designed to fit comfortably.

· Practise social distancing by staying at home. If you have to go out, make sure you keep at least 2m away from others.

· Follow the limits for public gatherings.

· Understand how to self-isolate if you need to.

· Wash any reusable organic cotton masks after each use, so keep a few handy.

· Remember that cotton masks are not substitutes for the surgical masks required for medical purposes.

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