7 COVID Face Masks Ranked From Least to Most Effective
Mar 5, 2021
Mask inserts are the best way to make COVID-19 masks breathable and comfortable. While they can fit under any type of mask, they only offer as much protection as the mask they are inserted into.
To get the comfort and protection you need from your COVID face mask, you should pair your insert with the right type of mask. To help, we’re taking a quick look at seven popular COVID mask designs and ranking them from least effective to most effective.
Least Effective Masks
7. Alternative Masks
Neck gaiters and bandanas quickly became popular masks, especially early in the pandemic when masks were scarce. Many people stuck with them for regular use or as a breathable mask for the gym. These mask alternatives are lightweight and offer a different fit than conventional options.
The downside of these alternative masks is that they don’t offer the same level of protection. Gaiters can protect you from sun and cold, and bandanas are great for keeping out large dust and dirt particles. But neither is designed to stop the transmission of viruses and bacteria. The material is too porous, allowing small particles to pass in and out easily.
Using a bandana as a face mask can actually increase the spread. As breath passes through the materials it breaks droplets up, making them small enough to stay in the air longer.
6. Knit Masks
Like breadmaking and Dalgona coffee brewing, the knitting trend has taken off throughout the pandemic. Naturally, plenty of knitters are seeing that connection and deciding to knit their own masks.
Home knit masks are fun, warm, and personable—but they just don’t cut it when it comes to protection. It doesn’t matter how well you wield those knitting needles, no pattern or yarn material can effectively prevent transmission.
Knit masks are simply too porous to prevent bacteria and viruses from getting in or out of the mask. As well, droplets cling to this material, which may increase your risk of infection. If you do choose to wear a knit mask for aesthetics, wear it over an approved mask, and frequent, thorough washes are a must.
5. Single-Layer Masks
Single-layer cloth masks are better than knit or alternative masks. Still, they aren’t really adequate protection for any situation. There’s a reason medical face masks use multiple layers. A lot can get through a single layer, but each additional layer is like a filter that prevents more particles from getting through.
Think of it like toilet paper (now that people have stopped hoarding it). Sure, single-ply is the bare minimum you need, but you wouldn’t want to use it for a two- or three-ply job.
A singly-layer mask should really only be used as a last resort. If you’re going to use it, consider doubling up.
Most Effective COVID Masks
4. 2-Layer Cotton Masks
A double-layer cotton mask offers decent protection. In addition to the tighter weave of cotton helping to keep bacteria at bay, the second layer further reduces penetration. This level of protection may not be sufficient if you are working in close proximity with others, or in a high-risk environment for an extended time.
3. 2-Layer Polypropylene
Like double-layer cotton, two-layer polypropylene masks use an additional layer of fabric for extra protection. But polypropylene has an added benefit. Not only is the material a good filter, but it also holds an electrostatic charge. This charge won’t affect the wearer, but it does make the fabric more effective at trapping droplets trying to get in or out of the mask.
One thing to note about polypropylene is that it loses its charge if you wash it. To get the electrostatic charge back after cleaning the mask you can rub it with a plastic glove for 20 seconds, or iron it.
Although polypropylene is more effective at filtering small particles than cotton, it is not as comfortable. A good solution can be to look for a blend.
2. Cotton-Polypropylene-Cotton Masks
This blend may be the most effective washable COVID mask. It sandwiches a layer of polypropylene between two layers of cotton. This makes a three-layer mask that is comfortable to wear and has a greater degree of protection.
Some manufacturers use two layers of polypropylene for superior filtration between the cotton layers. However, these can be more difficult to find. If you are using a reusable COVID-19 mask, cotton-polypropylene-cotton (CPC) is your best bet. Make sure to wash frequently, and pay attention to the recommended number of washes before tossing the mask.
1. 3-Layer Surgical Mask
Like the CPC masks, these masks use three layers of protective material to filter out particulate. No mask can 100% prevent transmissions, but a triple-layer surgical mask is the most effective.
Early in the pandemic, it was recommended to leave these for hospital, medical, and first responders. Since then, production has increased enough that these are now available for civilians in many regions.
While a disposable mask is not the best for the environment, it is the best choice when operating in a high-transmission-risk environment. By disposing of the mask after each use you reduce the risk of spreading or contracting an infection from any trapped droplets in or on the mask.
Triple-layer surgical masks may not be necessary when outside or for short excursions with plenty of social distancing. But they’re a smart bet whenever and wherever transmission risks are elevated.
Where three-layer masks are much more effective at filtering particulate, some complain that they make the masks less breathable. Fortunately, breathable mask inserts are just as effective with triple- as double- or single-layer masks. In fact, a three-layer COVID mask with a PowerAir insert is more breathable and comfortable than a single-layer mask without the insert.