Here's Why Cotton Face Masks Might Work Better Than You Thought

Over the course of the last year, infectious disease experts have urged the general public to wear face masks when outside of their household as it has shown to be one of the top ways to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In an effort to determine which facial coverings provide the most efficient form of protection for ourselves and others, a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute discovered that when it comes to material-based masks, cotton provides a better defense against COVID-19 than masks created with synthetic materials (via U.S. News). Of course, medical-grade masks offer great protection as well, but for those of us who don't have access to them, it turns out that cotton cloth is a terrific alternative.

To get a closer look at each of these mask's ability to filter particles produced from our breath, researchers compared the makeup of cotton masks and synthetic masks under the close eye of a microscope (via NIST). Synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon, are composed of tightly woven fibers in a grid-like pattern. Cotton face coverings, on the other hand, have two layers of protective weave with the topmost layer arranged in a jumbled crisscrossing of fibers. For this reason, particles are more likely to come in contact with, and become trapped within, the tangled arrangement of the cotton mask fibers.

Research shows that cotton masks are better able to contain moisture than masks made with synthetic materials

Another factor that was found to influence the filtration abilities of these masks was the humidity levels in our breath. Using a simulated trial where air was forced through tubes at the same temperature and rate of a natural human breath, cotton fibers were found to absorb moisture on average by as much as 33 percent more in these humid conditions — whereas synthetic masks did not display any filtration improvement (via Daily Mail). Because cotton masks have the ability to keep potentially-infected droplets contained within the makeup of the mask itself, the risk of spreading decreases.

When considering which fabric-based masks to purchase, it appears that cotton masks provide more efficient protection than those made up of synthetic materials. Remember, because cotton masks are better able to contain moisture, it's important to keep up with routine mask washing in order to keep facial coverings clean and dry. Picking a mask that offers the highest level of protection is an important part of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.