You Need to Upgrade Your Mask Now: Here’s How

Facing the more contagious coronavirus requires better fit and filtering, or doubling up, and watching out for fakes

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
7 min readJan 26, 2021

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Photo: PansLaos/Getty Images

With the coronavirus evolving to be more contagious, it might take fewer virus particles to make you sick. Just maintaining the same level of protection you had against the initial strain therefore requires a more effective mask. But the choices are bewildering, ranging from the gold-standard N95s to highly effective surgical masks to a slew of reusable options that range from good to fraudulent.

“We use N95 masks in the hospital, and I’ve taken care of more Covid patients than I can count,” says Abraar Karan, MD, an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Many of them were not wearing masks and coughed right in my face, and I never got infected.”

Problem is, a year into the pandemic, N95s remain in short supply even for health care workers. Karan and other experts say the federal government needs to fast-track an existing plan to develop standards for testing, manufacturing, and distributing effective masks for the broader public — a plan still thought to be months from fruition.

“We can’t fully MacGyver our way out of this,” Karan tells Elemental. But we can try. In search of a more perfect mask, Karan and other experts offer the latest science-based mask options and clever hacks, from 3D-printed nose clips to doubling up your masks, that MacGyver would surely appreciate.

Improve filtration

Filtering material works by forcing air to twist and turn, trapping virus-laden respiratory droplets like leaves caught up in a river strewn with fallen logs and branches. Anything from cloth to nylon will trap some particles, but no single layer of cloth is ideal. After N95s, the most efficient filters are the ubiquitous, disposable surgical masks. As with N95s, surgical masks employ a layer of non-woven polypropylene, made of highly effective, randomly arranged fibers.

“We can’t fully MacGyver our way out of this,” Karan tells Elemental. But we can try.

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB