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More than a year ago, we never expected to have to use masks to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Now, wearing a mask has become the norm in our daily lives, and although I’m sure you feel tired of wearing masks, we need to hold on a little longer. 

A year ago, specialists speculated that the pandemic could last up to two, five or even ten years, and now we’ve seen that it may take more time, although it does not mean we won’t be able to learn to live with it. And, as you have seen, the virus is evolving, and now we have other variants such as the British and the African one. Masks do not save you from getting infected, but they significantly minimize the risk by covering the main infectious spots of the body: the mouth and nose. It may sound overwhelming, but as you inhale those particles when wearing a mask, you can become infected with the virus. While you may be protecting yourself, the ones around you may not be. That’s why some people are skeptical of going outside in spite of having less restrictions than a year ago. But the reality is that as you keep wearing your mask, disinfect your hands, and practice physical distancing, the probabilities of getting infected decreases.

In which case, there’s a debate you’ve probably heard or been part of: which kind of mask is more effective for protecting yourself from the virus? The most common are the surgical masks that need to be discarded and the fabric/cloth ones, which we tend to reuse. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have questioned which type of mask is the most effective. 

[bf_image id="85qvwbsfjqjq9ccjs6vv86r5"] So, I took the liberty of creating a poll on social media and asked which type of mask people prefered to wear: disposable, reusable (cloth mask), or both, and why, and whether it depended on the context (such as place, people or outfit). Here were some of the answers:

  • “None.” (with crying and laughing emojis. It does not mean this person does not use them, it just means they are tired of having to wear them). 

  • “I feel more safe with the surgical ones or the N-95.”

  • “I prefer cloth ones, but if the ones I have are disposable I’ll use those hahaha. It depends on the mood.”

  • “Disposable surgical because I feel safer and are the recommended ones.”

  • “Black disposable ones because they go with everything.”

  • “Disposable because they protect more.”

After a year of watching the virus evolve, are we more convinced of the use of disposable masks instead of the cloth masks or do we prefer to keep using the fabric ones?

Advantages and disadvantages

On one hand, the cloth mask represents a potential new source of income for people who have lost their job, who have not received any government aid yet, who are at home confronting a new routine, and found a new hobby in the sewing industry; or who like to mix and match and make the mask part of the outfit just for fun and making the process of getting used to this new “normal” easier. These masks also reduce the expenses in masks and they are accessible for people who cannot often afford surgical ones. 

As a precaution, the World Health Organization says: "when you take off a mask, store it in a clean plastic bag, and every day either wash it if it’s a fabric mask." These masks can be used by the general public, which include people under 60 years of age, that are not part of the emergency staff and that are not especially at risk or frequently exposed to the virus. But, on the other hand, specialists are worried about the use of these kinds of masks because, most of the time, they only have one layer, people do not wear them correctly, or they lack a filter. But, other specialists like doctor William Li, support the use of these masks with three layers specifically, emphasizing that you don't need to add a filter. These ones are often made of polyester or cotton and you just have to wash them after each use.

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Disposable masks are different. I had the idea that these were safer, but here's an opinion from doctor Deborah Weatherspoon: “Surgical masks can’t protect against infection with SARS-CoV-2. Not only does the mask not filter out smaller aerosol particles, but air leakage also occurs through the sides of the mask as you inhale.” 

Yet, other experts approve of these masks because they come with a metal strip to fit your nose and face, which covers you up. In addition, they are cheap and due to the fact that it’s mostly for the general public, the special masks like the N95 and KN95 can be reserved for medical teams. Maybe the worst part, besides what doctor Weatherspoon stated, is the overproduction of these masks and the probability of a higher contamination. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I always heard about how air and water pollution was decreasing, but since day one I've been asking myself: How many masks have been used since the first day? Now we have less restrictions, the air and water returned to their 'normal' contamination, but now with an imminent danger: mountains of disposable masks.

So, you may be asking yourself what to use if both could help you in the prevention of contagion, while at the same time they’re just next to each other considering which one is the best (being the surgical above the fabric one), and considering there are other methods to help you lower the risk of infection.

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Evaluating context

We already know the use of masks is necessary, even though not completely efficient if you do not combine it with physical distancing and keeping away from  touching your eyes, mouth, and nose before washing your hands.

We also know that both fabric and surgical masks could work and are acceptable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So when are we supposed to use them?

In conversations in the past months I observed that people prefered to use surgical masks when:

  • Going to crowded places with non-familiar people such as supermarkets, shopping centers, hospitals or medical offices, restaurants, other countries, and outdoors activities, or mass events.

While fabric masks are prefered if:

  • You're visiting friends and family and you're sure you're making everything to not get infected, so you feel comfortable using fabric masks. 

The reality is that people also use fabric masks in the surgical masks scenarios. The CDC published a guide one month ago on this topic. Additionally, people use surgical masks in fabric masks scenarios. It's more of a preference of which one makes you feel safe and responsible.

We need to continue to watch the virus’ evolution, listen and read recommendations from reliable sources, and evaluate the people we're meeting with and at which places. In the end, the most important thing is to cover the mouth and nose, the places where particles can easily be expelled or could enter. Wearing a mask is not just a simple hashtag, but a lifesaver. Be responsible and make sure to have it everytime you go out and protect not only yourself, but the ones around you as well.

Journalism and Political Science student at Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Currently, practicing photography, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), UPR-RP chapter and journalist for Latitud 801 and Diálogo UPR. Mother Earth's friend. ?
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