Photo: iStock (ElenaLux)
As provinces reopen as we enter the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, is now recommending that Canadians wear non-medical face masks whenever physical distancing isn’t possible (including in stores and on public transit). Dr. Tam also stressed that though masks provide an “added layer of protection,” physical distancing, hand washing and staying home when you’re sick continue to be necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. This new recommendation comes as COVID-19 restrictions are easing up in several provinces and people begin going outside, taking public transit and visiting businesses.
But what exactly are non-medical face masks—and how do they protect us against COVID-19? Here is everything you need to know about non-medical masks.
Non-medical masks are any kind of face coverings that aren’t N95 masks or surgical masks, which should be preserved for frontline workers and healthcare professionals. Non-medical masks made from fabric can be bought from an increasing variety of vendors, from Etsy to Tanya Taylor to Frank and Oak. You can also make your own masks at home (check out a great DIY mask roundup here).
When you cough, sneeze or even talk, you secrete respiratory droplets that may go on to infect others. A face mask helps prevent the spread of these droplets—especially as people are sharing spaces again—protecting others from infection. (Still not convinced you need to wear one? Also remember that many individuals who are infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, and could be spreading the disease unknowingly.) “It’s not so much that it protects them [the] from getting infections,” says Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “The masks are there to prevent these droplets from going out and onto their hands or surfaces where other people can touch and get [infected].” Plus, according to Dr. Banerji, there’s an obvious cumulative effect: more people wearing masks means fewer droplets being spread.
According to Health Canada, a mask should: be breathable, fit securely to the head with ties or ear loops, maintain its shape after washing and drying (so the mask continues to fit snugly), be comfortable and not require frequent adjustment, be made of at least two layers of tightly woven material (such as cotton or linen) and be large enough to completely and comfortably cover the nose and mouth without gaping.
The best fabrics for non-medical masks are thick and durable natural materials, like cotton. “You want to avoid synthetic or non-natural materials because this is something that’s going in front of your nose and mouth area and you’re going to be breathing through it,” advises Narveen Jandu, a cellular microbiologist and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems.
It’s imperative that the mask fits snugly over both the nose and mouth, and is comfortable. If you know that certain materials irritate your skin, it’s best to avoid them so that you’re not constantly adjusting your mask when it becomes uncomfortable. “The worst thing you can do is put on a mask and be constantly touching your face,” says Dr. Banerji.
Because viruses are so small, it’s impossible to completely block all those tiny particles, but the addition of a filter—either extra layers of fabric or a disposable filter—provides more protection. Jandu likens the number of layers to thread count in bedding: “The higher the thread count, the tighter the weave and the tighter the weave, more of the respiratory droplets are being captured.”
Filters can be made from paper towels or coffee filters (which work well because they’re breathable and disposable) then inserted in between the fabric layers of a mask. If you’re buying a mask, look for one that comes with a pocket where you can insert a filter—or you can include a pocket in your DIY mask. If you don’t have access to paper towels or coffee filters, you can still capture droplets with a couple layers of fabric. If you’re DIY-ing a mask, folding your material a couple times to create layers will also help it capture more respiratory droplets.
Before putting on your mask, wash your hands. Then, loop the fastenings behind your ears or head and avoid touching the front of the mask so you don’t alter its shape or accidentally touch your face. When taking the mask off, unloop or untie your fastenings and carefully take the mask off from your ears or the back of your head. Again, be careful not to touch your face or the front of the mask to avoid getting any droplets captured by your mask on your hands. Finally, wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds.
The great thing about fabric masks is that they can be washed just as you’d wash your clothes. Ideally, you should toss your mask into the washing machine and then machine dry them at the end of each day. However, if you don’t have a washer and dryer at home, you can hand wash your mask with soap and water and let it air dry.
Jandu suggests having a few masks on hand, one for each day you go out, and washing all of them at the end of the week.
“Physical distancing is really the main thing, and masks don’t replace physical distancing,” says Dr. Banerji. You should wear a mask anywhere it’s difficult to physically distance, like at the grocery store or on public transit, to protect yourself and others around you.
Masks aren’t necessary if you can keep the recommended six feet or two metres of space between yourself and other people. “When you’re walking or running on the street by yourself and there isn’t anybody around you, especially in the early morning hours, then a face covering is not going to be necessary,” says Jandu.
However if you live in a crowded area where it’s hard to physically distance, it wouldn’t hurt to err on the side of caution—New York, for example, has recommended masks for crowded sidewalks.
Dr. Tam has said that masks may not be suitable for some people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities or people with hearing problems. Wearing a mask may aggravate those on the autism spectrum, and could also trigger asthma attacks. Vanessa Foran, president and CEO of Asthma Canada, told The Canadian Press that people with asthma should experiment with wearing a mask at home before heading outdoors, and also should try to avoid going outdoors with a mask in hot weather.
According to Health Canada, children under the age of two shouldn’t wear masks. Young children might not be able to communicate any discomfort or difficulty breathing—and they might not be able to take off their mask themselves.
For kids that are old enough to wear a mask, Dr. Banerji advises that parents explain to their children why they need the mask and remind them not to touch their faces. Like adult masks, children’s masks should fit snugly over the nose and mouth. Parents should also be cognizant that masks aren’t fastened with anything sharp (like staples or safety pins) and should make sure that masks are free from anything that children might fidget with (like extra material or decorations).