1 layer? 2 layers? 3 layers? No mask? Does it make a difference?

A small, but crucial weapon against the spread of COVID-19 has been the mighty face mask. The use of face coverings has been recommended by various health authorities around the world, and research studying the effectiveness of face masks is ongoing. There is, however, a variety of different face masks available: surgical masks, homemade cloth masks, and so on.

So, which of these are the most effective? As reported by ABC News, new research published in the journal Thorax indicate that a key factor in this is the number of layers within a mask. Essentially, your first choice should still be a surgical mask, although cloth masks are the “next best thing” if you don’t have access to medical grade face masks.

Researchers examined the effectiveness of different face masks—1-layer cloth covering, 2-layer cloth covering, 3-layer surgical mask, or no mask at all—at preventing the projecting of droplets while talking, coughing, and sneezing. Similar to another study on face masks, the researchers used high speed cameras and LEDs to illuminate the trajectory of the droplets during the aforementioned activities.

Here are the results:


As you can see, the surgical mask appears to be most effective at preventing transmission of droplets during all activities. Not wearing a mask at all leads to the most transmission of droplets (least effective)—although this is significantly improved by wearing a cloth face covering. And for cloth masks: more layers equate to more effectiveness, according to the study.

Additionally, droplets are projected forward even while speaking, so the importance of face masks continue to be highlighted by research. Other studies have also examined the differing effectiveness of various face masks, although the common denominator is that face masks should be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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However, with potential shortages in face masks in certain regions, it’s also important to understand the effectiveness of alternatives—and why you should use a surgical mask, if possible. The expelling of droplets via coughing (or even speaking) is one of the transmission methods of COVID-19, so remember to wear a mask in public areas, especially if you’re displaying symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, a Senior Minister has announced that the use of face masks are to be mandatory on public transport and crowded areas from the 1st of August. Those who infringe upon the regulations will be reportedly be hit with a RM1,000 compound notice, per the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.

To read the full journal article on the effectiveness of face masks, click here.


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