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Which face masks are most effective and which to avoid


Two women and a man in different face mask types

What science tells us so far about which types help prevent droplet transmission.

With face masks now commonplace due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, retailers have begun to sell a range of different variations.

From P2 masks to bandanas, there are now so many options flooding the market that it can be difficult to know which one to buy.

Scientists are attempting to shed some light on the situation though, with recent research suggesting that some types aren't particularly effective in reducing the particles that are released when you cough, sneeze or talk from travelling too far in the air.

A new study, published in journal Science Advances on 7 August, looked at the efficacy of 14 different face coverings to determine which ones are most effective at blocking droplet transmission.

Each mask or mask alternative was evaluated on its ability to reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets during regular speech.

The study found N95 masks were the most effective type of mask, with 3-layer surgical masks and cotton masks also performing well.

Grid of face covering types

Results of face mask study.

Fleece masks, also known as neck gaiters, were found to be the least effective type of mask. Knitted masks and bandanas were also amongst the worst-performing material types, allowing through high numbers of respiratory droplets.

However, the study tested just one fleece mask and bandana, even though the coverings come in a variety of different fabrics. Due to this, it cannot be concluded that all neck gaiters are ineffective or that wearing one is any worse than wearing no face covering at all.

The Australian Government Department of Health reports similar information to the study in Science Advances claiming that P2 or equivalent (N95/KN95) masks protect against airborne transmissions, while surgical masks also offer adequate droplet protection.

It also states there is limited evidence that fabric face coverings offer protection from coronavirus, and claims there is currently no evidence that handkerchiefs, bandanas or scarves offer any level of protection from the disease.

Given that limited studies have been carried out in regards to face mask efficacy in the face of COVID-19, more research needs to be done before it can be determined which coverings are the most effective at preventing the transmission of droplet particles.

In the meantime, Sydney-based GP and health communicator Dr Brad McKay has said that, "any face covering is better than nothing."

Want more help with masks? Check out our overview of face masks, how to choose the best one, what doctors recommend when using them, the rules that apply in Australia and our regularly-updated guide on where to buy masks.

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