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VERIFY: Expert says wearing a mask at all is more important than the type you wear

An expert from Johns Hopkins Hospital breaks down what kinds of masks are most effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

You’ve heard it plenty of times during the COVID-19 pandemic: Wear a mask. But you may not have heard what kind of mask you should use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face coverings, but that’s not all that specific. There are many different types of cloth masks, and more are being designed as the demand for them soars during the coronavirus outbreak.

So what kind of mask should you be wearing? The VERIFY team spoke with an expert from Johns Hopkins Medicine to find the answer.

THE QUESTION

What kind of mask is best to wear to help stop the spread of COVID-19?

THE ANSWER

Whichever one that is most comfortable for you to wear for long periods of time, as long as it doesn’t have some kind of hole unfiltered air can come out of, according to Christopher Sulmonte, project administrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

WHAT WE FOUND

“For the general public, wearing a mask, regardless of what type of mask it is, as long as you are able to wear it consistently, first and foremost is the most important thing,” Sulmonte said.

He said that summer temperatures can make sweat build in face masks and cause them to become hot and uncomfortable. Because of this, it’s important you use a mask that is going to be comfortable enough to wear in the heat. He even mentioned considering the mask's color because darker ones will trap more heat -- just like darker clothes.

Since the main purpose of masks is to catch droplets that come out of your mouth and nose -- protecting others from your potential infection -- any cotton material should do the job as long as it doesn’t have holes.

Sulmonte said masks with valves could be a bit of a complicated issue. A valve mask with the right filter, one that filters the air you breathe out, could be helpful, he said. But the most common types of masks with valves, such as ones used in construction, are not helpful for COVID-19 because they only filter the air you breathe in, not what you exhale.

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He also had concerns about medical masks. N-95 masks, for example, are used by doctors who are working closely with patients who have the virus. However, Sulmonte said, the masks must be fitted for the doctors to create the seal necessary for proper protection, and the average person won’t necessarily get a fitted mask. A surgical mask does the job fine, he said, but is designed to be disposable. It’s better to get a cloth mask you can throw into the washing machine and reuse than use a surgical mask you will have to continually replace.

Face shields may have some use in specific circumstances where you’re in a tight space with face-to-face interaction for an extended period of time, he said. One example he gave was airline flights. Outside of those situations, they don’t add more than a mask would.

RELATED: VERIFY: Will retailers with mask policies let shoppers in with a face shield instead?

Ultimately, Sulmonte believes cloth masks are the way to go, and the different types of cloth coverings don’t make a difference. A cotton mask made of thin fabric should do the job just like a double-layered one.

Still, more research is being done on how to make masks more effective. 

Credit: AP
Customers wear pandemic masks while waiting to place an order at a food stand, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Wiscasset, Maine. State officials reported new cases of the coronavirus but there were no new deaths, the Maine Center for Disease Control reported Wednesday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“There are a lot of institutions that are looking at masking in general and giving you know, different groups opportunities to kind of see ways to improve masks, generally, for the public,” Sulmonte said.

So it’s possible the best mask to use changes in the future. For right now, however, any cotton face covering without holes should be good, especially one comfortable enough that you can wear it for an extended period of time.

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