Scientists say high-quality fabric face masks are needed to slow pandemic

Any face mask is better than no face mask at all, but that doesn't mean every mask is equally effective at protecting against the virus behind COVID-19. A number of studies have looked into the various mask shapes and materials to determine which are best at reducing the spread of particles, the latest of which takes things a step farther by calling on governments to potentially require high-quality face mask use.

With several months now having passed under this pandemic, it has become possible to purchase inexpensive reusable face masks, as well as medical masks and, in some limited cases, N95 ventilators (which are rightly being reserved for medical professionals in most places). Reusable face masks vary wildly and some are less effective at protecting the public than others.

There are a number of high-quality reusable fabric face masks on the market, including ones that have multiple layers of tightly knitted fabrics and pockets for inserting disposable filters. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the cheap, readily available, and poorly-sewn face masks that often feature only one layer of fabric, loose stitching, and a poor fit.

It has been established by this point in time that high-quality face masks are far more capable of slowing the spread of droplets in the air and protecting the individuals who wear the masks. In the US, the FDA has made it clear that it's primary effort is initially focused on getting everyone to wear a face mask in public — any mask — but that getting people to wear high-quality options is ideal.

The Society for Risk Analysis has published a new study that focuses on this aspect of curbing COVID-19's spread, noting that the use of non-woven cotton batting or other similar materials would make reusable face masks more effective at filtering the small droplets that may carry the virus.

The study refers to these high-quality masks as Effective Fiber Masks (EFM), citing a number of existing studies into the cost of these masks (dollars) and the amount of money (thousands of dollars) they save the public by slowing the spread of COVID-19. The growing body of research suggests that it may be ideal for governments to subsidize high-quality masks to weed out inferior alternatives.

The study notes that under an EFM policy, governments could establish various performance standards for these reusable masks, giving manufacturers a standardized way to test and label their masks while also helping consumers make safer choices. Potentially, mandates could even be passed that require face masks to meet a certain minimum quality standard.