During the start of the pandemic, when both surgical masks and N95s were in short supply, cloth masks began to make an appearance. Even when the supply of disposable masks began to improve and were more widely available to the public again, cloth masks continued to grow in popularity due to their ability to be personalized to the wearer. Like a certain sports team? You could find a mask with their logo. Want everyone to know your affinity for gardening? Wear a mask printed with different plants and flowers on it. Now that we are having to mask back up due to the Delta variant though, many people are asking, how effective are cloth masks, really?
First, it is important to recognize the differences between masking now and at the beginning of the pandemic. Since masks were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic, it was important for health professions to have priority access to them, therefore cloth version were considered to be the next best form of protection. As recently as this past August, Dr. Anthony Fauci had stated that everyone just needs to wear a mask and to stop worrying about what kind. So, why are we now seeing some airlines banning cloth face masks and hearing people say that disposable ones are better?
For the most part, it depends on the situation. Are you going to be indoors and, if so, will it be crowded? Will you be there for just a few minutes or for an extended period of time? Will others be wearing a mask? What is your vaccination status and that of those around you? Are you immunocompromised? Based on these questions, you can estimate a level of risk and, if it is a riskier situation, a higher quality mask should be used.
All of this is not to say that cloth masks cannot be high quality and useful. If it has a minimum of three layers made of a combination of cotton/linen and polyester/nylon, an experimental lab study published in the May journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering found that it resembled the performance of a surgical mask. Additionally, the fit of the mask is extremely important and can be improved on both cloth and surgical masks by knotting the straps and tucking the sides, in order to improve the fit on different faces.
As studies on masks, the Delta variant, and COVID in general progress, recommendations may continue to change. But for now, the evidence shows that cloth masks do provide some protection, but there is newer evidence to suggest that surgical masks offer better protection.
For more information on the studies that have been done around cloth and surgical masks, read the full story on KHN: https://khn.org/news/article/ask-khn-politifact-is-my-cloth-mask-good-enough-to-face-the-delta-variant/.