The Best & Worst Face Masks For Protecting Against Covid-19, According To a Doctor

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Covid-19 research is still in the early stages, but according to Dr. William Li, data shows that wearing a mask does help prevent the spread of Covid. "As a medical doctor, it's in my opinion that the data exists to show that masking is one of the most important things that we can do, and it absolutely curbs the spread of Covid," Dr. Li says. "I've had a chance to study Covid and I know more than anyone else, because I'm a researcher, just how important prevention is. It's just like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, anything else — we want to avoid this if we can."

"For right now, masking is, to me, a second nature thing that we've got to do. It's kind of like brushing your teeth before you go to bed at night, or when you get in a car putting on your seat belt or stopping at the stop light. It is just simply one of those things that keeps everyone safe," he says.

Dr. Li shares photos from research he recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. "These are the comparison of blood vessels in the lung. The reason we were interested in looking at this is because the coronavirus is a respiratory virus; it gets into our lungs first. On the left, you can see what a healthy lung looks like. There's beautiful, lacy blood vessels and they're wrapped around an air pocket," the doctor explains.

"On the right you can see is after Covid-19. This is a respiratory virus, it's infected the lung and you can see how it completely changes the lung. It's not a pretty picture," Dr. Li says.

Lungs before and after Covid-19
Rachael Ray Show

"Now I do want to emphasize that these changes are in the lungs of people who had severe Covid and died, and even though we looked at every patient and we found this in every patient we examined, it's really too early to say for sure that everyone who gets the coronavirus is going to suffer from these changes. But this is part of what we're learning. This is something we all definitely want to avoid."

And since wearing masks has become the new normal, it's also important to make sure you're wearing one that is effective at preventing the spread of the virus. Dr. Li cites a study from Duke University that looked at which masks are most effective in protecting us. "Surprisingly, they also took a look at which masks don't really work at all," he says. "So what I want to do is walk you through three masks that work and two that don't work really well."


Most Effective Mask: Fitted N95 Mask

N95 mask

Duke's study found that the fitted N95 mask is the most effective mask, which is not surprising, as Dr. Li points out. This is what healthcare workers use in the hospital. "You've got to have it fitted, it actually seals around the face. But here's the deal: you don't really need to freak out about trying to find one of these things, because they're still being reserved and saved for our healthcare workers."

Most Effective Mask That's Readily Available: Surgical Masks

surgical mask

The study found that surgical masks, or procedure masks, are the next best option in terms of effectiveness. And the good news is, they're pretty readily available, the doc points out. "They're what your dental hygienists wear, so they're comfortable and you can wear them all day. And surgeons will wear them for hours," he continues.

"There's a top and a bottom — and the top actually has this wire ridge. When you wear it, bend it around your nose. Get a really good fit, pull it down over your chin. We've got the data that this actually works. It's pretty good, it's the next best thing to an N95. They are single-use only, so when you're done with them you just toss them out."

Most Effective Mask You Can Buy Or Make At Home: Poly/Cotton Masks With 2-3 Layers

cotton masks

Research from Duke University's study shows that poly/cotton masks are equally as effective as the procedure or surgical masks, as long as they have two or three layers (three layers are better than two, but two layers is just fine), Dr. Li says. "You don't need to add a filter, they're really comfortable, they're convenient and they're washable," he continues.

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"This study also took a look at masks that don't work. So I want to show you two masks that kind of 'flunk the test,'" Dr. Li says.

Not Very Effective: Bandana Mask


We've all seen people walking around wearing bandanas as masks, but the Duke study actually found that "wearing a bandana is definitely better than not wearing a mask, but it's only a little bit better than nothing at all," the doctor explains.

Not Effective At All: "Neck Gaiter" Mask

neck gaiter

"But there's a worse [option]," Dr. Li warns: the neck gaiter. "This is something we don't want to do," Dr. Li says about wearing a neck gaiter. This style of mask is actually worse than not wearing a mask at all! "It's hard to believe, but that's actually what they found in this published study," Dr. Li says. "The explanation is that the shape of the gaiter allows respiratory droplets to actually become finer and then the shape of the gaiter allows the finer droplets to spray out in the air, which is worse than not wearing a mask at all," he explains. "Now the research didn't take a look at the fabric and the type of fabric [of the neck gaiter], so what we know is that the shape is problematic."

"We went through the best mask for healthcare providers, we went through a whole series of things that are practical, good, you can use and they're comfortable, you can wash them — all the way to the bandana and to the gaiter that you don't want to wear — so really it's easy now to kind of recognize what you want to go for," Dr. Li says.

The doc concludes with three simple steps we should all remember, or what he calls "the rule of thumb" for now:

1. Wear a mask — it's going to protect you and protect other people.

2. Keep a safe distance.

3. Wash your hands.

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