All in the fabric
Even well-fitting N95 respirators fall slightly short of their 95% rating in real-world use, actually filtering out around 90% of incoming aerosols down to 0.3 µm. And, according to unpublished research, N95 masks that don’t have exhalation valves — which expel unfiltered exhaled air — block a similar proportion of outgoing aerosols. Much less is known about surgical and cloth masks, says Kevin Fennelly, a pulmonologist at the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.
In a review9 of observational studies, an international research team estimates that surgical and comparable cloth masks are 67% effective in protecting the wearer.
In unpublished work, Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and her colleagues found that even a cotton T-shirt can block half of inhaled aerosols and almost 80% of exhaled aerosols measuring 2 µm across. Once you get to aerosols of 4–5 µm, almost any fabric can block more than 80% in both directions, she says.
Multiple layers of fabric, she adds, are more effective, and the tighter the weave, the better. Another study10 found that masks with layers of different materials — such as cotton and silk — could catch aerosols more efficiently than those made from a single material.
Benn worked with Danish engineers at her university to test their two-layered cloth mask design using the same criteria as for medical-grade ventilators. They found that their mask blocked only 11–19% of aerosols down to the 0.3 µm mark, according to Benn. But because most transmission is probably occurring through particles of at least 1 µm, according to Marr and Jimenez, the actual difference in effectiveness between N95 and other masks might not be huge.
Eric Westman, a clinical researcher at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, co-authored an August study11 that demonstrated a method for testing mask effectiveness. His team used lasers and smartphone cameras to compare how well 14 different cloth and surgical face coverings stopped droplets while a person spoke. “I was reassured that a lot of the masks we use did work,” he says, referring to the performance of cloth and surgical masks. But thin polyester-and-spandex neck gaiters — stretchable scarves that can be pulled up over the mouth and nose — seemed to actually reduce the size of droplets being released. “That could be worse than wearing nothing at all,” Westman says.
Some scientists advise not making too much of the finding, which was based on just one person talking. Marr and her team were among the scientists who responded with experiments of their own, finding that neck gaiters blocked most large droplets. Marr says she is writing up her results for publication.
“There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s confusing to put all the lines of evidence together,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “When it comes down to it, we still don’t know a lot.”
Minding human minds
Questions about masks go beyond biology, epidemiology and physics. Human behaviour is core to how well masks work in the real world. “I don’t want someone who is infected in a crowded area being confident while wearing one of these cloth coverings,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Perhaps fortunately, some evidence12 suggests that donning a face mask might drive the wearer and those around them to adhere better to other measures, such as social distancing. The masks remind them of shared responsibility, perhaps. But that requires that people wear them.