UK HealthCare

Do It Yourself Test: How Effective is Your Mask?

Craig Martin
UK College of Pharmacy professor and associate dean, Craig Martin. | Mark Cornelison, UK Photo.

The University of Kentucky Public Relations & Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by Craig Martin, a professor and associate dean in the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 7, 2019) — Wearing a face mask is mandatory in Kentucky to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But is the mask you're wearing each day enough to protect you?

It's important to note that any mask or face covering is better than nothing. On the other hand, there is some variation and it's important to know that each mask offers different levels of protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks with at least two, preferably three, layers. Make sure the fabric is tightly woven. A quick and easy way to check your mask for efficacy is to hold it up to the light. Is it see-through? If that answer is 'yes', it's on the thin side and probably not as effective. In this case, do your best to double up the fabric.

The COVID-19 virus is carried through respiratory particles. When you speak, sing, shout, cough or sneeze, particles are carried out of your mouth and nose. Those particles have virus in them. This is why social distancing is so important. Particles will carry in the air for a few feet and generally fall, but someone next to you could breathe them in. A mask decreases the amount of virus that comes out of the particles in the air, thus reducing the number of particles someone is expelling into the air.

Wearing a mask not only protects you, it protects others, too.

We put several masks to the test to determine which are most effective. Our test is not meant to be scientific. Instead, it is one that you can do at home with a common household item - a candle or lighter. For this experiment, we used a 3-ply mask, a paper mask (similar to one you would find at a hardware store), a neck gaiter and a homemade mask with three thick layers of cotton fabric.

We used a lighter and found that when wearing the 3-ply masks, the paper mask and the homemade mask, we were not able to blow out the flame. These masks were most effective. The neck gaiter was a different story. We found that while wearing one layer, we were able to blow out the flame easily. When we doubled up, it was still pretty easy to blow out the flame. After quadruple-layering the gaiter, we were not able to blow out the flame as easily, although there was some movement when we exerted all of our force to try and blow it out.

The masks that are most effective are not going to be the most comfortable to wear, as they are generally thicker, making it seem harder to breathe. However, the likelihood that you have a significant medical event because of your mask is very low.

People in various professions have been wearing masks for years. For example, surgeons wear masks for hours on end and it doesn't cause any problems. On the other hand, there are people who have medical conditions that make wearing a mask more difficult. The best thing for those folks to do is to stay home, but if they need to go out, wear a mask and look for situations where they can take them off and remain socially distant.

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