As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in 2021, we must remain vigilant against more contagious variants of the virus that have reached Colorado. Even with the rollout of vaccines in the spring, we are in a race to beat this virus and must continue to prevent its transmission as best as we can.
Research by CU Boulder experts and scientists across the world have now clearly shown that aerosols are the main route of transmission for SARS-COV-2, as outbreaks continue to happen in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. These invisible airborne particles are so small that they float like smoke in the air, yet they are still large enough for the virus to hitch a ride. This allows the virus to travel more than 6 feet and remain contagious for up to two hours in the air.
Aerosols are different than larger droplets which fall quickly to the ground after you speak, cough or sneeze, although they are sometimes both referred to as “respiratory particles.”
How can you tell if your mask is actually working to trap aerosols as well as these larger droplets? And how can you spruce it up if it’s not? We’ve got you covered.
Test your mask
Hold your mask up to a light. Can you see through it?
Compare a cloth mask with a neck gaiter, and you’ll notice how much more easily you can see through the gaiter. The more easily you can see through your mask, the more likely those contagious aerosols are making it through as well. The exception to this test is surgical masks, which may look thin but are electrostatically charged to boost their filtration—but you’ll need to tweak a surgical mask to fit your face better (see below).
Try to blow out a candle.
Put on the mask you want to test and then light a candle. Try to blow it out! If your mask has a good enough filtering ability, you shouldn’t be able to do it. Again, if it is too thin and you can blow out the candle, this mask is likely letting aerosols through.
Try to fit your fingers through the sides.
Use your fingers to check if there are gaps around your nose and on your cheeks. Even a very small gap between your skin and the mask can allow up to half of the air you breathe out to escape unfiltered—and the virus with it. Surgical masks are a common example of a poorly-fitted mask around the cheeks, and many cloth masks leave gaps around the nose.
Breathe in while wearing it.
The easiest way to test if your mask is fully sealed against the air around you is by wearing it and inhaling quickly. You should notice or feel the fabric get sucked in towards your nostrils or mouth when you breathe in.
Breathe out while wearing it.
The easiest way to test if your mask is catching all the aerosols leaving your mouth and nose is to exhale heavily. Did your glasses fog up? The area around your nose is not sealed. Did you hear a “woosh” by your ears? The mask is not flat enough against your cheeks. And if you don’t seal off your cheeks, you will be shooting your aerosols straight at the person behind you.
Tweak your mask
Mold the mask to your nose.
To seal off those aerosols, wear a mask with a wire or metal noseband sewn in so you can mold it around your nose. In a pinch, you can use a Band-Aid to seal the mask on your nose and keep your glasses from fogging up. If you have masks that cannot seal off the area around the nose, wear those outside where aerosols dilute and dissipate quickly.
Get an “ear-saver.”
Ear-savers are pieces of plastic that you wear on the back of your head and hook the mask’s ear loops through, relieving pressure on your ears. They improve the fit of your mask by flattening it against your face better, mostly around the cheeks. They are cheap and come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, as well as fun colors.
Twist and tuck your mask.
If you’re wearing a surgical mask, you can improve its fit with a few quick adjustments. Watch how to do that in less than 2 minutes here.
Purchase a face adapter.
Face adapters, like Fix The Mask, work by flattening a mask against your face in a way that seals off the cheeks and nose if the mask itself is not properly designed to do so.
Wear a multi-layer cloth mask or double mask.
Layering a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask improves both the fit and filter of a face covering. You can also insert filters into some cloth masks to increase their ability to catch aerosols, or wear a bandana or gaiter on top of a cloth mask in a pinch. Just remember: never double mask with N95s or KN95s. If you do double mask, make sure you are only doing so to cover gaps. Two masks directly on top of each other could result in more air seeping out the sides on your cheeks, which is not what you want.