Face masks are quite an important item to have today, but that’s a recent development here in the West. The face masks sudden and wide-scale use has caused a bit of extra hassle for all of us, and waste for the planet.
Fortunately, reusable masks can help alleviate or even remove some of these problems. In particular, their use can help avert much, if not all, of the ecological impact of masks. And, they will probably help with the impact on your finances, too.
Facing a pandemic
So far, we’ve seen that a huge uptick in the demand for masks and lack of systems to properly dispose of them after use is causing quite some environmental damage (in the shape of waste). But we are, after all, in a strange and trying time — one in which masks are essential.
Here, reusable face masks come into the picture. They function the same as single-use ones: they force air to pass through a material that acts as a filter, removing water droplets that ferry viral particles around. The key difference is that such masks are meant to be used, washed, and used again for months, even years.
Medical-grade single-use masks are made from layers of plastic materials, and there are several types of reusable medical masks. Our doctors and nurses need these right now, though, so what I recommend instead are home-made or professional fabric masks.
Such masks aren’t used in hospitals because they don’t offer enough protection against a host of pathogens. But for the general public, where the main point of concern is preventing coronavirus-bearing particles from entering our mouth or nose, even makeshift masks (such as tightly-wrapped scarves) are effective at preventing the spread of the virus between individuals. They are also moderately effective at reducing the volume of droplets emitted by a carrier and the range they’re exhaled at.
Professional or home-made, reusable face masks are more effective than these makeshift ones (particularly due to their tighter fit, which prevents particles from sneaking around the mask). Sites such as Etsy are brimming with people sewing masks of all colors and patterns, and there are plenty of wholesale reusable face mask retailers to be found online, as well. Also, if you want to make your own, we have a handy guide on how to do so quickly, cheaply, and very likely without having to leave the house (always a plus).
If you want to purchase some, let’s see what you should look out for.
How to pick a mask
A mask’s efficiency is decided by two factors: how well it filters, and how well it fits the user.
One of the first things you should look for are layers. The more material there is, and the tighter they’re pressed together, the harder it will be for a contaminant, in our case a coronavirus, to pass through. Secondly, look at the material they’re made of.
The densest materials have the best filtration purposes. It’s a bit tricky to check online but ask if your retailer is willing to give you a picture of the mask with a light behind it. If the light shines through it’s probably not dense enough to filter germ-carrying particles of saliva. However, you don’t want it to be too dense either, which would make it hard or impossible to breathe through (your lungs need to put in extra effort to push and pull air through the material).
Cotton and silk are all great materials for a mask. Pillowcases and that slightly elastic cotton cloth used to make t-shirts are perfect.
Another useful element for masks is to have an alternation between materials, as each has a different way of filtering the air passing through. A study carried out at Argonne National Laboratory with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) found that “one layer of tightly-woven cotton combined with two layers of polyester-spandex chiffon can filter out between 80% to 99% of all aerosol particles in a sample”, making them comparable to N95 respirator masks in terms of efficiency.
In order to not lose its filtering ability, natural silk and flannel can be a great alternative for chiffon. The team explains “that the cotton creates a physical barrier to incoming aerosol particles, while materials such as chiffon and natural silk can become charged, serving as an electrostatic barrier”.
As for the fit, it might be hard to test when buying online. If you can’t reliably tell whether a mask will fit you properly, see if the retailer you’re dealing with has any way of helping you out, or what kind of return policy they run. If you’re making your own, or buying in person, the fit is much easier to test.
But be thorough in this regard: even the slightest gap between the mask’s edges and the user’s skin can reduce their filtering efficiency by 60%, the DOD study found.
How many masks do you need?
This really depends on how often you go out and about, and your ability to wash and dry the masks. Two or three should be enough, but if you don’t like doing laundry, getting more will let you cycle through them and keep chores to a minimum as you can wash them in bulk.
Masks should be washed after every use — just toss them in the washing machine when you get home. These masks are meant to prevent any coronaviruses in the air from reaching your mouth and nose (which are vulnerable), so assume they’re contaminated after every use.
Don’t let someone else handle your mask when you come in, don’t keep it with other clothes if it hasn’t been washed. Don’t wear a mask twice without washing it — if it is contaminated with the virus, it can spread to all the mask and do more harm than good.
As a fellow lazy person, I strongly recommend you keep two washed masks in your house at all times so that when you invariably don’t feel like cleaning one, you still have the other one available.
Reusable masks can be pricey, especially compared to the single-use variety. But they will help you save money in the long run, as single-use masks are cheap but their price adds up over the long run.
Should I wear a mask?
The coronavirus spreads mostly through infected drops of saliva we release when breathing, talking, walking, coughing — basically whenever air comes our of you. Its carried by small droplets of liquid (aerosols) produced in our lungs, respiratory tract, or mouth.
Such masks cover two of the most vulnerable points of access for the coronavirus: our nose and our mouth. Even if a drop doesn’t directly land on those areas, we can transport them there on our fingers, so the mask helps mitigate or remove this risk. The eyes still remain vulnerable, so if you can, wear some sunglasses or other protective gear in addition to the mask (here are some tips on how to make them fog less).
Thus, the use of masks can help us avoid becoming infected in the first place. But they’re most effective at stopping carriers from spreading the virus to other people.
Depending on environmental factors, the coronavirus can survive for several days on common surfaces. It gets there from a carrier – the virus sheds off infected individuals through the aerosols they produce. These then land on any surface close-by and pose a risk for infection. Masks can help nip this in the bud by preventing carriers from shedding the virus through their breath, making their environments much safer for other people.
The virus also seems to have a knack for infecting our living spaces, so if you tested positive, wearing a mask at home can help keep your flatmates or family safe (but you should still isolate yourself as a precaution).
Face masks are one of the most convenient, proven, and accessible ways most of us have in protecting against the coronavirus. Society, especially Western ones, have never used them to such a degree as they do today.
But this massive surge in use is draining supplies, overwhelming suppliers, bypassing the waste disposal systems medical facilities have set in place to handle used masks, and clog up beaches in Hong Kong.
Reusable masks can help keep stocks of this vital protective gear available for doctors while helping us save money (by not buying a new mask every day).
Although such masks are not useful in a medical setting, they are efficient enough to protect everyone who isn’t working in a hospital currently. They’re also effective at limiting the amount of the virus that carriers can shed, thus helping protect everyone else around them.
If the use of masks becomes mandatory, reusable masks can help reduce the environmental toll they would carry. E&T Magazine estimates that if every person in the UK wore a single-use mask per day for a year, they would create “tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated plastic waste” every year, and have ten times the environmental burden of the same scenario using reusable masks.