We’re at that time of the year where we really see the seasons start to change. If you’re up in the north, the days are getting longer and warmer. If, like me, you’re in the south, winter is on its way, and the blankies are starting to come out. Regardless of whether you’re in the Southern or Northern hemisphere, though, there’s one thing you can be sure of: This season’s looks are all about masks.There’s been a lot of debate going around concerning the subject of masks. Why are they all sold out? What kind is best? Who should wear them, and do they help anyway?Initially, the World Health Organisation was advocating against widespread mask use, particularly in healthy people, citing the need to save them for medical personnel. Now, though, with increasing information about the COVID-19 pandemic, and the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers (and spreaders) of the virus, it’s becoming clear that wearing a mask may actually be pretty important.Why should we wear masks?The first reason we’re now being told we SHOULD wear masks is in order to protect each other. Though the mask may not be very helpful when it comes to stopping you from contracting the virus, it can play a role in preventing you from spreading it. A growing body of data indicates that, contrary to what was previously believed, asymptomatic (showing no symptoms of infection at all) and pre-symptomatic (infected but not yet showing signs of infection) carries can in fact spread COVID-19. In other words, the virus can be spread by people who do not feel sick at all, and are not coughing or sneezing.It’s also been found, in a lab setting at least, that virus particles can remain airborne for up to three hours, although how it behaves in your local supermarket, for example, may be somewhat different. A normal cloth mask can probably not do much to prevent you from inhaling particles that are already floating about, but it can stop you from projecting particles into the air around you when you talk, or at least lessen the amount of particles you do project, and slow their velocity.What kind of masks should we wear?According to this informative article on the topic, N95 respirators are “the gold standard for those on the frontlines”.“When worn properly — securely fitted to a wearer’s face — they offer protection from about 95% of small particles (0.3 microns in size, which is still larger than the virus particles) and large droplets,” writes news reporter Zahra Hirji in the article.When it comes to filters, you can’t get much better than that without suffocating yourself. While the “gold standard” part of that first statement may sound like a great reason to get your hands on a few, the more prevalent point is the “for those on the frontlines” bit. Healthcare workers are already experiencing massive shortages of personal protective equipment, and hoarding a bunch of N95s in your apocalypse bunker is not going to improve the situation. In addition, nobody is recommending that the general public wear N95 respirators.After N95s, surgical masks are the next most effective guard against larger respiratory droplets. According to the article, surgical mask had about a 90% filtration efficiency for very small particles (around 2 microns, much larger than the virus particles). However, now that medical workers on the frontlines are running out of N95 respirators and having to downgrade to surgical masks, governments are starting to rethink recommending those to the public too.Again, for those who haven’t been paying attention: the WHO stresses that ALL medical masks should be reserved for the use of medical practitioners who need them most.Recommendations around the world for the general public, then, have been to wear cloth masks. The effectiveness of these, according to Hirji, is a little harder to determine due to the massive variation of materials, and the lack of studies on the topic. However, the consensus seems to be that a little protection (in the form of cloth masks) is better than no protection at all. If people adhere to wearing them along with practicing good hygiene and social distancing, the spread of the pandemic will slow.The great thing about cloth masks, is that you can wash them (in hot water) and re-use them, unlike surgical masks and N95 respirators which should only be used once. Some cloth mask designs (keep reading for more about this) can even have filter paper inserted into pockets which can increase their effectiveness not only when it comes to stopping you from spreading the virus, but also from contracting it.Are there other reasons to wear a mask?It may take a while to get used to wearing masks every time you go out, but there are actually a few silver linings to it! If you really need more reason to keep your mask on than the fact that it could save the lives of people around you, think of it as 2020 fashion.Wearing masks as as fashion isn’t new to Asian countries. for ages they’ve been available in different colours and styles, and worn more for aesthetic purposes than to slow the pace of a pandemic. If anything, western countries are late to the party!Another silver lining is that women have to spend less time and money on make-up if nobody’s going to see their faces anyway. Finally, I can confirm after living in the north of Japan, that when winter comes they’re a great way to keep your face warm!Where do I get a cloth mask?There are number of great retailers making and selling masks in various styles right now. In times like this, everyone’s struggling, so supporting small local businesses who have adopted this business venture is important. ask around or do a google search of manufacturers in your area. I’ve just ordered a few lovely floral ones from this local retailer, and I’m looking forward to receiving them.If you REALLY wanna get creative and also enjoy a new hobby, sew some masks yourself! This gives you an opportunity to pick the colours, fabrics and design and have everything exactly to your liking (or matching all your outfits). There are hundreds of patterns and tutorial videos online right now. I tested out two patterns, one suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one designed by medical practitioners when no other form of PPE is available.The CDC mask is a very simple pattern that took a few minutes to make. The fit isn’t extremely secure, but it’ll do in a fix. It’s a great starter mask if you’re making, and a way to warm up to the more complicated, Olson mask pattern. There are also directions on their site on how to put together a makeshift mask if you don’t have a sewing machine.The second pattern, called the Olson Mask, is more complicated (but if a rookie like myself can get it right, anyone with a sewing machine and some fabric can). It offers a lot more protection for the wearer and anyone around by incorporating pockets into which filters can be placed.
When we finally do emerge from quarantine there’s going to be a heck of a lot to adjust to. The masks are just one new aspect of this new normal, but they’re one we can turn into something positive. Don’t be afraid of embracing them as function AND fashion! And also, don’t be an asshole and continue to buy up all the N95 respirators you can find, unless you’re actually working on the front lines of this thing (I WILL give you dirty looks over my own mask in the supermarket).If you’re still not convinced that you should be wearing a mask of some kind when you go out, or you’re one of those people who keeps taking them off in the shop to tell your friend that your face is getting warm, pleasePLEASEjust stay at home.