Cloth Masks - What are the Pros and Cons

cloth face masks

This article is submitted by Sayak Nandi. This article covers the pros and cons of cloth masks.

1. Introduction

In this COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become a part of our lives. COVID-19 transmits from one person to another through contact, droplet and through airborne. As a result to reduce community transmission, and reduce the rate of infection masks have been our vital weapon for a long time. Till a viable vaccine is available commercially, it can be expected that the masks will continue to be one of the major weapon against COVID-19.

During the earlier phases of the pandemic detailed information was not available on SARS-COV 2 virus even its proper modes of transmission was unclear. Since there was an evidence of air borne transmission, N95 (95% efficiency) and similar masks like N99 (99% efficiency), FFP2 (94% efficiency), FFP3 (99% efficiency) were advised to be used. However due to high demand and mass usage of these masks soon there was a global shortage of proper health care equipment. Due to this shortage US, CDC and later WHO recommended common people to use cloth masks.

In the current Mask market Different types of face masks are available even Different types of fabrics have been used in making face masks as a result current market has been flooding with cloth masks. Being a consumer of masks, the question very much crosses my mind are these good enough to protect me from the virus, or which type of masks are better and safer to use, based on this I have tried to list some pros and cons of the Cloth Masks currently being used.

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2. Pros of Using Cloth Masks

2.1. Availability of Raw Materials

The materials like Cotton fabrics, Silk, Chiffon, blends or Polyester fabric even Polypropylene to a certain extent is very much available to common people. One can very much use garments or apparel products commonly available as raw materials for making of masks. Hemp Foundation have engaged women from Uttarakhand in producing Hemp Masks, Hemp however is not that available commercially, however if one has the access, one can definitely use hemp for masks, since it has inherent anti-microbial, UV resistant properties.

2.2. Easy to Make and Customize

The cloth masks are very easy to make and can produce. One can refer to Blog: How Much Fabric Needed for Making Face Masks (3-Ply Masks) for details on this.

A Cotton mask can produce 79 ±23% efficiency depending on the count of yarn, weave EPI & PPI used for making the mask. Materials like Silk, Chiffon, and Nylon can provide efficiency of approx. 90%, it however provides better filtration properties compared to cotton since it develops positive electrostatic charges by triboelectric effect which helps in better filtration. Materials like Polyester and Polypropylene can also be beneficial since it not only develops negative electrostatic charges, but also contains wicking property for better comfortability, even polyester have good UV resistance. One can also use multiple layers for enhanced filtration properties.

One can easily customize the shape, size, raw materials for masks as per ones preference for cloth masks.

2.3. Comfortability can be customized

Comfortability and Breathability are two of the most important aspects for a mask. It is necessary to understand tighter weave does signify higher filtration properties, however at the same time the masks should be breathable. Pressure Differential (Δ P) is a very important aspect while determining comfortability of a mask and standards are available for measuring for N95 and Surgical Masks. However for cloth masks since a lot of combination of raw material is available hence it is difficult to determine the proper pressure differentials. As a result the breathability should be an important parameter for cloth masks beside filtration. Polyester and Polypropylene in this aspect can be used has wicking effect which can draw the sweat out of skin and hence giving comfortability. Unlike materials like cotton which hangs onto the sweat, can be very uncomfortable to wearer.

2.4. Available in wide variety of designs

During the pandemic, masks have become a part of fashion as well. Several fashion designers and fashion brands have taken to adding their creative touch on the masks. As a result, masks have turned into a fashionable item in recent times. Several celebrities like Billie Eilish, Cardie B have been spotted using designer masks, all these have resulted common customers in going for designer masks. Since masks are made from clothes, a variety of designs is available and can be customized by individuals.

2.5. Reusability

Cloth Masks can be reused. It is necessary to wash the masks properly with detergent water or soap water after every usage. Masks must be dried properly before reusing it; otherwise it will cause difficulty in breathing.

Another aspect of cloth masks is majority of the natural fibres are ecofriendly. Compared to surgical masks, N95 and similar masks made from SMS, SMMS fabrics (made of Polypropylene, polyesters mainly) cannot be recycled easily are not at all ecofriendly. As a result these used masks have been source of pollution in water bodies and landfills, which is one of the most alarming aspects in this covid pandemic.

2.6. Cost

When I talk about the cost of these cloth masks, definitely it is very inexpensive; however this topic is very debatable. The production speed of the non-woven machines are very high compared to the normal woven machines. As a result the net cost of the product becomes very low, such that a surgical mask can be bought at a rate of ₹4-5 per piece. However the cost of N95 and similar masks are fairly high. So, compared to them the cloth masks are inexpensive, again the net cost depends on the material being used.

3. Cons of Using Cloth Masks

3.1. Filtration

Our human droplet size ranges from 5 μm to 1000 μm, the cloth masks can effectively filter out particles of 6 μm diameter and higher, however along with filtration, breathability and comfortability is an important aspect while using the mask. Compared to that N95 respirators comes with valves which enhances breathability.

The diameter of SARS-CoV-2 virus varies from 0.06-0.15 μm. So, if we directly compare that Cloth masks can have good filtration efficiencies for particles of 6 μm diameter size and higher (especially for silk which has very high filtration efficiency). Compared to N95 masks it has good filtration efficiencies for particles of 3 μm diameter size. So, if one is wandering whether wearing of N95 masks can prevent the total spread then that’s not the case rather it can slow down the transmission.

3.2. Hydrophilic Nature of most natural fibres

One of the major aspects is most natural fibres are hydrophilic. As a result, when aerosol comes in contact with these fibres certain part gets absorbed. So, it is advised not to touch the upper surface of mask without proper washing and sanitization. For filter SMS, SMMS or similar fabrics, hydrophobic fibres like polypropylene and polyesters are used, so there is little of no chance that the aerosol will be absorbed by the fabrics.

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About the author: Sayak Nandi is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Textile Technology from GCETTS. His area of interest includes Technical textile, Weaving, Nonwovens, and sustainability in Textiles.

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