Is your mask actually spreading coronavirus?

New research on 14 different types of mask shows which ones are most effective for stopping the spread of coronavirus

(Image credit: Getty)

Whether it's the sky-blue triple-layer surgical mask, a simple scarf or a high-tech breathable fabric offering from Under Armour or ASICS, you'll see lots of different kinds of masks when out and about these days. 

Due to the ongoing global health crisis, masks are rapidly becoming the "new normal". But all these different kinds of masks and the vague rules about "face coverings" rather than specifying what kind of masks we should be wearing has lead to some that are safer than others. 

One recent study, published in the journal Science Advances, looks at the effectiveness of 14 different kinds of mask. These included the following: 

  • Three-layer surgical mask
  • N95 mask with exhalation valve
  • Knitted mask 
  • Two-layer polypropylene apron mask
  • Cotton-polypropylene-cotton mask
  • One-layer Maxima AT mask
  • Two-layer cotton, pleated style mask
  • Two-layer cotton, Olson style mask
  • Two-layer cotton, pleated style mask
  • One-layer cotton, pleated style mask
  • Gaiter type neck fleece
  • Double-layer bandana
  • Two-layer cotton, pleated style mask
  • N95 mask, no exhalation valve, fitted

The "laser test" used in previous research to prove the effectiveness of surgical masks was also used to test the effectiveness of these different kinds of masks, as participants would talk in front of a surface both with and without a mask, while lasers mapped the droplet spread. 

The study found N95 masks, which are designed to prevent 95% of droplets getting through the mask in either direction, were the most effective at preventing the spread of coronavirus. However, the FDA does not recommend N95 masks for daily wear, considering them "critical medical supplies". 


The 14 types of mask tested in the study

(Image credit: Science Advances)

Three-layer surgical masks and homemade cotton masks also performed well in the test. However, some of the others fared very poorly. Knitted masks were full of perforations, tiny gaps allowing the virus to escape, while folded bandanas provided very little coverage.

Neck fleeces may actually spread coronavirus further than wearing no mask, according to the findings. 

The research showed the fleeces turned larger droplets into smaller droplets, which were pushed through tiny gaps in the fleece, widening the spread of virus-carrying droplets. It's like switching a hose from a concentrated blast to a sprinkler spray. 


(Image credit: iStock)

'We want to emphasize that we really encourage people to wear masks, but we want them to wear masks that actually work' said co-author Dr Martin Fischer said in an interview with CNN.

'We were extremely surprised to find that the number of particles measured with the fleece actually exceeded the number of particles measured without wearing any mask.'

So in the absence of N95 medical masks, it's better to pick up a pack of disposable surgical masks or some washable, reusable cotton alternatives. Don't use a bandana, scarf or neck fleece to do the job.  

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Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.