Coronavirus update: Cotton face masks for coronavirus ‘can help slow’ COVID-19 – study

The coronavirus update comes as more than 10 million people globally have contracted coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US have now completed a study on the effectiveness of non-professional face coverings made from a variety of natural and synthetic materials. As countries like the UK start to lax their coronavirus lockdown measures people wonder how to best protect themselves in public.

Researchers at NIST have tested 32 cloth materials to determine which were most effective at withholding particles similar in size to the coronavirus pathogen (SARS-CoV-2).

Of the 32 materials, three of the five most effective ones were made from 100 percent cotton.

Tightly woven fabrics also fared better than knits and loosely woven materials.

Cotton fabrics with raised fibres also appeared to work better than smoother fabrics.

Four of the five lowest-scoring performers were made from synthetic materials.


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The researchers believe using multiple layers of cotton fabric in face coverings can further increase their effectiveness.

However, none of the materials were as effective as N95 masks – professional-grade surgical masks and respirators used to protect from airborne particles and droplets of liquid.

NIST researcher Christopher Zangmeister said: “It turns out that off-the-shelf materials provide some protection from aerosols if you use multiple layers of cloth and a face covering fits snugly.

“But none are as good as an N95 mask.”

The study’s findings were published in the journal ACS Nano.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people wear face masks in public when social distancing is difficult.

Cloth face coverings can help slow the spread of coronavirus

Dr Christopher Zangmeister, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Here in the UK, the Government has urged the public to wear face coverings at all times when on public transport or when visiting hospitals.

The Government’s advice reads: “If you can, you should also wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet.

“This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas.”

Although wearing a homemade face mask or face covering alone will likely not stop you from becoming infected, it can offer some base protection from the coronavirus.

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Face masks paired with social distancing and self-isolation if symptoms appear, remain key to fighting the pandemic, which has already claimed 500,000 lives.

According to the NIST study, homemade face masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Dr Zangmeister said: “We didn’t know the answer when we started this project.

“But the bottom line is that none of these fabrics are as good as an N95 mask.

“Still, cloth face coverings can help slow the spread of coronavirus.

“We hope this research will help manufacturers and DIYers determine the best fabrics for the job and serve as a basis for additional research.”

In additions to readily available fabrics, the researchers looked at using materials such as coffee filters, HEPA filters and surgical masks.

Materials chemist Jamie Weaver said: “The texture turned out to be one of the more useful parameters to look at because we found that most of the cotton fabrics with raised threads tended to filter best.

“Our findings suggest that a fabric’s ability to filter particles is based on a complex interplay between material type, fibre and weave structures, and yarn count.”

According to the World Health Organization, the use of face masks and coverings needs to be part of a comprehensive plan to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Alone, the use of masks and coverings will not protect people from the virus.

The WHO said: “Non-medical, fabric masks are being used by many people in public areas, but there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.

“However, for areas of widespread transmission, with limited capacity for implementing control measures and especially in settings where physical distancing of at least one metre is not possible – such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments – WHO advises governments to encourage the general public to use non-medical fabric masks.”

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