They’re the unexpected new accessory for spring.
Hotly debated long before Canada was forced into a mid-March lockdown, masks have been among the COVID-19 topics that have left people puzzled.
Questions continue as Ontario prepares to reopen. In some cases, masks have become mandatory: Customers shopping at Longo’s grocery stores, for example, were required to cover their faces as of May 4. In others, they remain highly advised.
So what’s the best mask? And what’s the best way to use it?
An ideal mask ticks a lot of boxes, said Narveen Jandu, a cellular microbiologist and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems.
It should be low cost; washable and reusable; easy to put on and take off; and secure and durable.
It should maintain its shape and integrity during cleaning; be comfortable; provide a good fit around the nose and mouth; and be breathable.
There are a lot of masks on the market these days. Jandu helped us break down some pros and cons of several popular options.
So you’ve chosen the mask that’s right for you. Now, how do you make the most of it?
Wearing a mask has some added benefits in certain situations, but it does not make you invincible to COVID-19, Jandu said, echoing recommendations from Health Canada, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Viruses are “so, so small” that face masks will never be 100 per cent effective in blocking them. People need to continue prioritizing physical distancing — staying six feet, or two metres, apart — and handwashing, while avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth.
“Face masks could lead to an overly false sense of security or invisibility resulting in a more casual approach or disregard of other more strongly recommended health and hygiene practices,” said Jandu.
Here are some answers to common questions about masks.
Where and when should I wear a mask?
A mask can help in situations where physical distancing can’t be practised, like if you are caring for someone else or where physical distancing may be more difficult, like in the grocery store, said Jandu.
You do not, for example, need to wear a mask when driving alone in a car or when you are outside for a walk, where you can practise physical distancing.
How should I wear a mask?
Masks should cover from the bridge of the nose to the chin and be as secure as possible, using elastic bands or ties — but not tape, staples or safety pins — to avoid shifting, said Jandu. They should be easy to take on and off, breathable, comfortable and maintain their shape.
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For homemade masks, adding a coffee filter in between layers of fabric can provide some added protection.
When wearing any mask, take note of which side is which. Identify an inside, which should always touch the nose and mouth area, and an outside, which can be exposed to the elements.
Who does a mask protect?
Masks help prevent respiratory droplets from expelling outwards, Jandu said. This may be particularly important as we begin to better understand the potential impact of “silent spreaders”: people infected by the virus who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic.
People with coronavirus symptoms should not be outside, mask or not.
How do I clean my mask?
One criteria to consider if purchasing or making a mask is whether it’s machine washable, said Jandu. Cotton or fabric masks are particularly easy to launder.
“Ideally they’re washed at the end of the day after daily use, but that can be challenging,” she said.
Jandu suggests making or purchasing multiple masks for different days of the week, if you’re able.
How much do masks cost?
Scarves, of course, may already be in your closet. The same can be said for supplies for homemade masks — like old T-shirts, bandanas, and hair ties or elastics. Homemade masks can also be purchased online, generally retailing from $20 to $30.
Neoprene fabric is typically sold for about $30 per yard, while the cost of pre-made masks ranges from about $15 to $30.
Face shields prices generally range from $20 to $50, though they can be worn with another piece of personal protective equipment, like a homemade mask, for an added layer.
Disposable basic surgical masks are sold in packs, with boxes of 50 ranging from about $20 to $50, but really should be left for health-care professionals.