PLEASE NOTE: all guests are required to wear masks inside the Science Museum.

Question Your World: Why Should We Upgrade Our Masks?

Posted: January 14, 2022

Happy New Year! As 2022 gets going, our planet continues to face an ongoing pandemic. For us Virginians, this work began in March of 2020 and is continuing into this year. As the virus evolves and changes, so must our efforts to maintain public safety. One big issue that’s emerging: mask quality. This prompts today's big question: Why should we upgrade our masks?

Masks have been one of the primary tools to protect us and others from infection and transmission of COVID-19, alongside the safe and highly effective vaccines and widespread testing. But as the new and highly transmissible Omicron variant—which is spreading three times faster than previous variants—makes its way around the globe, scientists are now encouraging us to upgrade our mask game alongside getting vaccinated and boosted. N95 and KN95 masks have been shown to be the most effective, with surgical masks as the second best option and cloth masks after that.

Image credit: Getty Images

The N95 and KN95 masks have consistently been shown to limit the spread of tiny aerosols from people’s mouths as they speak, breathe, cough or sneeze. These aerosols are what spreads COVID-19. These particular masks are designed to catch as many airborne particles as possible using a dense network of tangled fabric. Using static electricity, these special fibers catch about 10 times those of normal fabric fibers like cotton cloth. Plus there’s a metal nose bridge and elastic ear loops to provide a very snug and comfortable fit. 

The 95 in the N95’s name is in reference to the 95% of aerosol particles it filters out. These aerosols are small, like fractions of a human hair width small. Cloth masks may have gaps in their fibers as large as 500 micrometers. That’s about five times the width of a human hair, and nearly 4,000 times the size of the novel coronavirus. So, N95s and their closely related KN95s and KF94s, are superior to both homemade and store-bought cloth masks.

Image credit: Getty Images

We know N95 masks have been harder to come by recently. If you're still waiting for your supply to arrive, one of the best things you can do is double up masks. Layer a well-fitting cloth mask (or a mask brace) over a paper surgical mask to tighten it around your face will increase filtration. A recent study shows this can block over 90% of exhaled particles.

Whichever mask you’re wearing, make sure it fits snugly all the way around your face to get the filtration effects you’re expecting. Ultimately, wearing ANY mask properly is better than no mask, especially in crowded indoor settings. Mask up with the most effective mask possible to help do your part in preventing the spread of the Omicron variant. 

Bonus points: regular mask use this winter will help keep your nose a little bit warmer, too!