how to choose a face mask

In many regions, the wearing of face coverings is now mandatory, but what should you know about choosing a face mask? And how do you know if you are choosing the right face mask?

As the pandemic continues and the fall season begins, a greater amount of time will be spent indoors compared to during the summer months. As such, preventive measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) will become more important.

It remains an important endeavour to continue to prevent the spread of the virus and flatten the curve in an effort to keep our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. An ever-increasing body of research supports the notion that wearing a face covering can reduce the risk of viral transmission, suggesting that wearing masks in public – particularly where social distancing might be challenging – can provide significant protection.

We have previously provided information on the different types of face masks – from N95 respirator masks to non-surgical face masks, and the varying levels of protection each provide, in addition to who should be wearing each type of mask, methods of re-use, and disinfection.

How to choose a face mask

Choosing a face mask might seem like a simple task, and the more time goes on, the more variety of face coverings are available in various designs and styles; but should you choose your face mask based on looks alone? What are the things you should look out for, and how can you be sure you are choosing the right mask for you?

It is a current recommendation that medical-grade masks (surgical masks, medical masks, and N95 respirator masks) are only used by healthcare workers or those providing care for patients with COVID-19. Keeping healthcare workers safe is a top priority, as they are at greatest risk of coming into contact with infected patients and being infected with the virus.

Non-medical masks or cloth face coverings should be worn by the general public. According to recommendations by Health Canada and the CDC, when choosing a face mask, you should look for:

–  a mask that fits securely either with ties or ear loops – covers comfortably and securely over your nose and mouth without gaping

–  a mask that can be washed and dried without loosing shape or fit

–  a mask that is comfortable so that you don’t always need to adjust it

–  a mask that is made from two layers (at least) of a tightly woven, breathable fabric (for example cotton or linen)

If you wear glasses, choosing a mask that has a nose wire to help it fit more snugly over your nose may help to prevent fogging of your glasses.

What type of fabric is best for a cloth mask?

It is important that any mask you chose should not be made of a material that is non-breathable – such as plastic.

Although cloth masks can’t block single virus particles, the transmission of viruses usually happens by larger ‘droplets’ that contain many particles. These droplets can be spread into the air when people speak, eat, cough, or sneeze. It is these larger particles that are more likely to be blocked by cloth masks. In addition to being spread into the air, the droplets can also then fall onto objects – such as tables – which are then touched by others, potentially allowing the transmission of the virus. Wearing masks can potentially prevent the transmission of droplets suspended in the air as well as those that come to rest on objects in the surrounding environment.

Although the filtration efficiency of cloth masks is less than that of surgical or N95 masks, they still provide significant protection against the spread of droplets containing viral particles. According to one study, when applying “the principles of evidence-based medicine to public policy, there is high-quality, consistent evidence that many (but not all) cloth masks reduce droplet and aerosol transmission and may be effective in reducing contamination of the environment by any virus, including SARS-CoV-2” 3  However, since the filtration is not 100 percent, it is important to remember to maintain physical distancing and continue with hand washing procedures.

A research study4 that compared filtration efficiency of different fabrics that are typically used to make cloth masks reported that cotton, natural silk, and chiffon provided good protection, as long as the weave was tight. They reported that higher threads per inch (thread count) were better at filtering particles. In addition, they reported that silk and chiffon were also effective and that combining cotton with either silk or chiffon could provide better protection. This study also reported that the fit of the mask was very important.

Other things to consider

Other safety issues should be considered when choosing a face mask. You should not share your mask with anyone else and your mask should in no way impair your vision or interfere with other important tasks.

Masks should never be placed on anyone who cannot remove them without help, anyone who has breathing problems, or children under the age of two.

Keeping more than one mask on hand might be helpful – especially for young children – who might be likely to need to have a clean mask during the day.

Having enough masks to ensure they are always available to you – for example spare masks while others are in the process of being washed – is also a good idea. Washing masks after each use is recommended, so this might mean you need a few spare ones on hand at any particular time.


  1. Non-medical masks and face coverings: About. Government of Canada.
  2. How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask. CDC.
  3. Clase CM, Fu EL, Joseph M, et al. Cloth Masks May Prevent Transmission of COVID-19: An Evidence-Based, Risk-Based Approach [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 22]. Ann Intern Med. 2020;M20-2567. doi:10.7326/M20-2567
  4. Abhiteja Konda,⊥ Abhinav Prakash,⊥ Gregory A. Moss, Michael Schmoldt, Gregory D. Grant, and Supratik Guha.  Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks. : ACS Nano 2020, 14, 6339−6347

Image by Please Don’t sell My Artwork AS IS from Pixabay 

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