Are You Using the Right Mask?

Yun Suh Lee ('23)

We wear masks daily to protect ourselves when there is pollen in the spring and summer or influenza in the winter. With the spread of the novel Coronavirus, more people in Japan and countless other countries began wearing masks in public places.

One of the most used and popular masks is called the Pitta mask, which is made of stretch polyurethane and is offered in different colors by ARAX, a medical company in Japan. Many claim that this mask is favorable because it is “extremely breathable and has a 99% filter rate”. However, they are not as efficient as they seem to be.

While it is true that the Pitta masks are sleek and popular, there is little information available on how well they filter out minute particles and pathogenic viruses such as COVID-19, which are found to be approximately 125 nm (0.125 microns) in diameter.

To test how well Pitta masks can filter out tiny particles that are invisible to the eye, Smart Air engineer Kang Wei purchased a pack of Pitta masks and tested them against 3M N95 masks, which are guaranteed to provide reliable respiratory protection of at least 95% filtration. She used the Met One 531, a particle counter, to measure particles as small as 0.3 microns; if a mask can capture particles 0.3 microns in diameter, it is reliable in capturing smaller particles, such as those of 0.1 microns. 

The results were bewildering. The Pitta mask captured an astounding 0% of 0.3-micron particles and only 64% of larger 2.5-micron particles. A similar result has been found in research conducted by AQ Blue, a company that produces efficient masks, thus proving that Pitta masks are inefficient in capturing particles as small as 0.3 microns or less, including COVID-19 particles. Meanwhile, the 3M N95 masks captured over 90% for both 0.3-micron and 2.5-micron particles.

Data shows that a surgical mask can provide more protection from the coronavirus than the Pitta mask. Tests from researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that a surgical mask they bought on the streets of Nepal captured over 60% of 0.1-micron particles.

Based on the aforementioned findings, what would be the best choice when picking a mask? The following are several types recommended by professionals: cloth or paper masks, procedural and surgical masks, and professional respiratory masks. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, when using cloth masks, thick and densely woven cotton is one of the best materials to look for. Cloth or paper masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus and constrict the virus from being transmitted to others easily. Procedural and surgical masks are loose-fitting but are fluid resistant and provide protection from larger respiratory droplets that come with coughs and sneezes. They primarily help prevent the wearer from spreading infectious droplets to others. Lastly, professional respirators (also called the N95 respirators) are medical devices that help prevent exposure to tiny droplets that can be suspended in the air. Although they are best when it comes to protection, they should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers who work tirelessly to ensure the community’s safety.

There are more alternatives to the Pitta mask such as cloth masks, surgical masks, and N95 respirators that are a better and more reliable choice when considering the efficiency of capturing and protecting ourselves against dangerous particles in the air. Pitta masks, as discussed above, barely work when it comes to small 0.1-micron particles like those of COVID-19. Therefore, with this ongoing pandemic, it is important to ask ourselves: Are we using the right mask?

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