Masks work, but the devil is in the details

Few things piss me off more than listening to some know nothing ideologue talk about all the reasons why masks are bad and opening the economy is worth a few deaths. Like when did America become the country of “I don’t give a f–k about anyone else?” But in all seriousness, masks and physical distancing are the two best ways we can get back to living. If you want to “open the economy up” and you won’t wear a mask, then you are part of problem. Nonetheless, masks are not a panacea, and their effectiveness has its limits. So I thought I’d tackle some of the details on this issue here.

A recent article popped up on the World Economic Focus discussing the most and least effective materials for masks. The article was concise, well-written, and featured recent data from the University of Arizona; a link to the paper is at the end of this article.

MASKS WORK, if worn properly

As I’ve already stated, masks work, so wear one! The rumors of blood oxygen saturation dropping and rebreathing carbon dioxide are complete bullshit; if you read my prior articles on altitude and exercise, you already know this. Very few individuals make the list for NOT wearing a mask. According to the CDC:

“children under the age of 2-years-old should not wear face masks. The CDC website writes, “cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

You can also add to that specific individuals with sensory related disorders, like some with autism. So in other words, the list is really small. Mild or exercise induced asthma doesn’t make the list. And frankly, if you exercise and claim you cannot breathe while wear a mask, then you’re doing something wrong. Wearing a mask properly maximize comfort and minimizes risks to others.

So where’s the devil?

Rather than rehash everything in the article, I want to focus on two items. The first is to high-light that you should wear a mask for other first, and yourself second, because they are more effective at catching exhaled virus than blocking incoming virus, as shown below.

When it comes to masks, layers matter, so 2-3 layers of tight weave fabric is excellent, that knitted scarf Aunt Martha made, not really. If you have a pocket in the mask, a vacuum cleaner bag offers a great added layer of protection both ways. No matter what your mask choice, when its wet, its done! Now it goes without saying that the longer you wear the mask, no more moisture will build up. However, exhalation also literally blows holes in the fabric, reducing effectiveness, which brings me to the most important aspect of this article.

Four tips for combating the effects of wearing a face mask

Exposure Time: The forgotten danger

With all the talk about opening back up and getting back to work or school, few, if anyone mentions how dangerous indoor exposures are relative to outdoor exposures; 19-fold more dangerous! It’s one reason why protests likely did not result in a rise in COVID-19 cases, but ill-conceived indoor rallies did. Indoors, air dilution and circulation is a fraction of what it is outdoors, meaning concentrations of virus remain much lower and less stagnant, thus increasing exposure risk. So reading the article on mask material, I was astonished how fast the mask effectiveness dropped after just 20-min; often by half! In other words, masks and distancing are great, but the less time you spend in one place, especially indoors, the better. This has serious implications for going back to school, work, restaurants, the gym. You name it, if its indoors STAY OUT!

FWIW: My mask protocol

  • INDOORS – A MASK, period. I also limit exposure time by moving quickly; it might take me an hour for groceries, but I go during low traffic and keep moving.
  • OUTDOORS – No mask. I respect those who wear a mask, but its largely not needed to walk by someone on the street as long as you are passing at least 1 meter or more apart. I generally don’t talk facing others either. But keep in mind, its 100 degrees and high humidity now, so my mask would be soaked within 10-min, and by 20, largely ineffective. I’d rather just keep my distance.
  • EXERCISE – As with outdoors. I avoid high traffic areas (which means less MTBing) and pass with more distance.
  • A final note on gyms – Don’t do it. My pool’s been closed for months, but I cannot fathom going to the gym, 10-ft or 20-ft. That’s a lot of heavy breathing with greater exhalation force. Remember, the mask is has little impact 45-min or beyond, especially if wet. Stay safe and keep others safe. There are plenty of ways to stay fit!

If you like this article or have questions, email me or comment.

COVID-19 and non-traditional mask use: How do various materials compare in reducing the infection risk for mask wearers?

Written by