Which Mask is the Best?
Checklist for whenever you leave the house:
Cell Phone - ✓
Keys - ✓
Wallet/Purse - ✓
Mask - ✓
Face masks have become an essential item over the past few months. It is like your cell phone or keys, you just cannot leave the house without it. In fact, I have once or twice left without wearing my mask, and I soon realized that I felt strange, exposed and vulnerable. My mask is my shield.
Thing is, you see everyone wearing different kinds of masks. There are primarily four types of masks available: cloth masks, surgical masks, W95 respirators and N95 respirators. So which one is the best for you? Well, as you shall see, there is no clear-cut answer.
Based on my usage, here are my observations about each mask type:
I call cloth masks something you use to escape being fined by the cops. It is something you can make with almost any fabric, be it handkerchiefs, chunnies, scarves etc. The basic premise is to have something that can cover your nose and mouth. It is quite comfortable and breathable, but that almost means its effectiveness is less than the other masks. With a cloth mask, air can enter via the top, bottom and the sides, thereby potentially allowing germs and viruses, especially if the other person you are interacting with does not wear a mask.
Regarding use cases, it is fine if you are simply going out for a walk in a not-crowded area, or if you just need to go out of the front door for a few minutes. I would not recommend using it in any indoor space, or if you have to interact with people for a long time.
Another issue with the cloth mask is that it will keep sliding down the nose when you talk or indulge in any physical activity like jogging, since there is no nose clip to hold the mask in place.
+ Cheap (its free)
+ Easy to Breathe out of
- Less Protection than other mask types
- Easily slides down the face
Before the pandemic, you would have mostly seen the surgical mask as something that was worn by doctors and nurses when performing well, surgeries. Nowadays, it has become something which the general public also uses, and it is my favorite of all the mask types. A surgical mask is mainly meant to protect the wearer from large droplets, splashes, sprays and splatter that may contain germs.
These masks are easy to breathe in, and I found myself able to jog comfortably with the mask on. They also do not trap heat from the nose and mouth, which is useful in a country with high temperatures. I also like the fact that it goes under the chin, and there is less air leakage via the top and sides. Another advantage of these masks is that they allow you to talk easily, since their shape allows space for your mouth to move without feeling constricted.
The downsides are that these masks are not meant to be reused. A surgical mask can be used for 7-9 hours, after which it needs to be disposed of. You can use it longer, but it's effectiveness will be reduced. They also do not protect against small aerosol droplets, unlike the N95 mask.
Regarding price, you can buy a pack of 100 masks online for around Rs. 400 - 500. I feel that the surgical mask is the best compromise. Yes, it does not protect you as well as an N95 mask, but it is something that can be worn comfortably for hours, and that is a very important consideration for me.
+ Very comfortable
+ Can be used during exercise
+ Keeps cool compared to other masks
- Cannot be washed/reused
- Not as effective as N95 masks
Tip: When buying surgical masks, make sure they have a nose pin/nose clip. If you are wearing glasses with a mask, the air you breathe out will fog your lenses, which is very annoying. A nose pin greatly reduces the chance of that happening by providing a seal where the mask fits around the nose. Even if you do not wear glasses, a nose pin is useful as it keeps the mask firmly in place and provides a tighter seal.
As seen above the surgical mask on the left does not have a nose pin, while the one on the right has a plastic nose pin (black in colour).
A respirator is a device which protects the user from outdoor pollution, dust and microbes. It does this by providing a seal around the nose and mouth and filtering the air coming in and going out. All respirators are masks, but not all masks are necessarily respirators.
One of the more popular brands which sell such types of masks is Wildcraft. They market their devices as W95 Respirators. It is a six layer mask made from polypropylene (a kind of plastic) and fabric.
These masks come in different sizes and colours and are popular because they can be reused and claim to be washable upto 30 times before losing effectiveness. They cost around Rs. 150 per mask, but you can buy bulk packs of 3, 5 and 7, which reduces the price per unit to Rs. 100.
These are not my favourite masks. I got the largest size, and I still feel it was small, as it left a gap at the bottom where my chin meets the mask. Also, the metal nose clip is hard and uncomfortable after 15-20 minutes of usage.
It is also a thick mask, and traps heat within. This will be good for someplace like Delhi during the winters, but during sunny warm weather it gets uncomfortable.
Also, since the mask fits closer to the mouth than surgical masks, talking becomes more difficult. In addition, the mask is more likely to slip down when talking compared to a surgical mask.
One last complaint, glasses do not really fit well with this mask. Since it is thick, your glasses will rest on the mask itself rather than on your nose.
+ Better filtration than surgical masks
- Poor fit for me
- Traps heat
- Difficult to talk with the mask on
- Not good for eyeglass wearers
N95 masks are the most effective masks in terms of filtration. They are designed to form a proper tight seal around the face, and filter the air coming in and going out. They are called N95 because these masks help filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles, and are produced using a fine mesh of synthetic polypropylene fabric.
Since these masks are most effective at filtration, they are what I would recommend if you are going to spend any amount of time in an indoor space where air is recirculated, like an office, mall, airplane etc. So, if these are the most effective, why are they not being used by everyone?
Well, the things that make the N95 effective also make it less convenient to use. It is definitely a mask which is difficult to breathe in, and is not recommended to be used by children, the elderly or anyone with breathing problems.
They are also not useful when exercising, since you will be breathing in more deeply, and these masks make you feel constricted. I felt uncomfortable using these masks even when going for a walk. They are best used when you are sitting down, and not exerting yourself.
These masks are not meant to be reused, though many people do use them for many days at a time. They are also not washable.
Regarding price, they used to be quite expensive a few months back, with prices ranging from Rs. 150 and above per mask. Nowadays, prices have gone down, and you can find a pack of 5 masks for around Rs. 250 online.
On the plus side, they are lightweight, and fit most face sizes. Also, they are easy to talk in, and do not retain heat like the W95 masks.
+ Most effective at filtering particles
+ Provides a tight seal
- Not washable
- Difficult to breathe
- Not meant for strenuous activity
I believe we should all wear masks whenever we leave the house, and be responsible citizens. Wearing a mask greatly reduces the chances of contracting and spreading Covid. There is no one mask which is best or worst. Based on your use case, you can make your choices. For me, the most important consideration is comfort. I’d rather have a mask which is slightly less effective if it means I can wear it continuously without feeling cramped. Thus, I personally find surgical masks to be the best compromise.