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How Safe Are Cotton Face Masks?

Face masks have inevitably become the most important piece of protection during the Covid-19 pandemic and will probably stay that way for a long time. However with surgical masks or N-95 respirators being inherently disposable and made from polypropylene nonetheless, one can’t help but want to seek out a greener yet effectively anti-bacterial alternative.

While the surgical masks and N-95 respirators offer the highest level of bacterial filtration efficiency, it should be noted that these masks are meant for first responders and health workers as buying them in bulk has already caused a shortage, not to mention they are designed to be single-use. According to an analysis by scientists at University College London, if every individual in the UK utilised one single-use mask each day for a year, an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be accumulated. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that that if 100% of individuals wore masks in public at all times and abided by social distancing measures, those steps alone could help prevent a second wave of Covid-19 from hitting during the next 18 months that experts say it will take to get a vaccine to market. Seeing as masks have become the new way of life, it came as no surprise that they’ve quickly created a demand for reusable, creative and fashionable versions. Today, our Instagram feeds are filled with printed, embellished and embroidered designer versions of the mask — but it begs the question whether they are really protective?

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released certain guidelines for a non-surgical, aka cloth mask that would provide utmost protection. According to them, the ideal combination of material for non-medical masks should include three layers as follows: 

1) an innermost layer of a hydrophilic material (e.g. cotton or cotton blends)

2) a middle hydrophobic layer of synthetic non-woven material such as polypropylene or a cotton layer which may enhance filtration or retain droplets. 

3) an outermost layer made of hydrophobic material (e.g., polypropylene, polyester, or their blends) which may limit external contamination from penetration through to the wearer’s nose and mouth.

So while cotton is a safe choice, the fabric by itself isn’t completely safe as it lacks filtration efficiency that its synthetic counterparts like nylon or polyester can provide. As proponents of sustainability, we encourage upcycling your current wears to fashion a reusable cloth mask and use the following chart as a reference when it comes to making decisions on your fabric of choice;

Image source: WHO

It is also advisable to invest in a couple of layered cotton masks and not just one so that they can be used in rotation and cleaned after every use. The WHO has also gone onto provide some additional guidelines on reusable masks;

Image source: WHO

Published by: Vibhuti Vazirani/ 2020-06-12

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