You have probably seen people blowing on candles through masks, supposedly to show how “good” the fabric is. It makes for a cute Instagram ad, and it’s simple.
Too simple, in fact. It leaves out many critical parts of what makes a “better mask”, and has no scientific basis. It can leave someone feeling confident about a mask that is actually subpar. So when this “candle test” was touted by Bill Nye himself on national television, so as Breathe99’s resident filter expert, I had to clear things up.
First of all, what does go into a better mask, according to science? There are three main factors that determine the overall effectiveness of a mask as it relates to protecting from airborne droplets and aerosols:
These are the main criteria that N95 respirators are tested for, which bubble up into a simple letter-number rating from a trusted regulatory body, NIOSH. However it’s important to note that for the general adoption of better masks, we also need to consider:
- Style - most people care about how they look and mask-wearing should be a part of that.
- Comfort - this is one of top reasons people don’t wear masks even if they understand why they should.
- Scalability - a simple design that is easy to manufacture with materials available domestically.
- Reusability - we don’t want to depend on a steady supply of disposable masks, not to mention the impact on the environment.
This is not new, in fact it was rightly pointed out by experts in the Harvard Business Review way back in October.
All in all, there is a LOT that goes into making masks effective and getting people to use them. Your mask is as good as its weakest link. If your mask is strong in all of the categories above, it means that you are well-protected and willing to wear your mask more often. Every factor above contributes either to better higher protection or making the masking experience less cumbersome, which helps drive better compliance overall.
Yes, wearing any mask is better than not wearing one. Yes, wearing a mask made of dense-woven materials is better than a loose fabric like a gaiter. Maybe, wearing two masks might be more protective than one, but not by a lot (in fact, there’s been some concern from public health experts that double masking will exacerbate any fit issues you’re experiencing). Do I need an N95? Yes. No. Maybe.
The nonstop chatter can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to know what to focus on! So, as someone who does have a scientific background and has been immersed in mask design since the pandemic began, I offer these seven questions you should ask yourself. They will help you determine if you need a mask upgrade, and what kind of upgrade will have the biggest impact.
- How good is my seal? i.e. how much air flows around the sides of the mask?
- How breathable is the material? And if it’s not, does it cause more air to flow where there’s no seal? If your fabric mask has a PM2.5 filter, how much of your breathing actually goes through that filter?
- How effective is the filter material? There are lots of articles out there on which materials filter best. Obviously, that’s only part of the story!
- Is my mask comfortable enough so that I actually wear it in the best-fitting way, and can wear it for as long as I need to?
- Do I care about style and does that affect how likely I am to wear a mask in front of others?
- How much have I spent on masks during the pandemic? Is it worth it for the daily protection they give me?
- How much do I care about my environmental footprint when it comes to disposable products?
You deserve a simple way to understand if your mask is protecting you and others, and to determine the right mask for your needs. Breathe99 is an impact-driven company, and we want to use our expertise in respiratory protection to improve the public understanding of better masks.
* Why should you trust me over a candle-blowing influencer? My background is in nanotechnology engineering and medical manufacturing. I have read 42 CFR Part 84, ASTM F2299/F2100 etc, so that you don’t have to. One of my first responsibilities at Breathe99 was to dive into the world of N95 respirator standards, and translate that into the B2 Mask design requirements. We have partnered with recognized experts such as Anthrotech to study face fit, and the University or Minnesota to study filter performance. Read all about our filtration testing in the B2 Filter Technology Review.