What I’ve Experienced With Masks 101:

We’re lucky where I am, with very few cases having been diagnosed here. We’ve had ten cases in the local shire region, never more than four active at any time, and we’re currently down from four active the three active. That’s mainly due to the very hard lockdown conditions in Melbourne so that very few zombies were able to travel out of the city.

(I’ve been calling the people that seek to find loopholes in the lockdown regulations, that ignore the regulations, and whose only purpose appears to be to get their own way even at the cost of potentially infecting hundreds of other people, zombies. Come on, they’re the movie definition of a zombie! It’s apt, admit it!)

Wife and I are also unlucky insofar as we both have respiratory and immune issues, so wearing a mask is both anxiety-inducing and essential. We’ve had an opportunity to try out and evaluate quite a few mask types. Here’s my attempt to demystify and de-anxiety-fy masks and mask wearing.

A Quick Round-up:

Masks can be thought of as being just a few types:
Containment Masks
Protection Masks
These are my terms, there may well be official jargon meaning the same things. To me, a containment mask is there mainly to prevent any virus YOU yourself may be shedding in your breath from infecting others. A protection mask prevents outbound infection but also filters and reduces the amount of contaminated moisture droplets that other people shed from reaching your respiratory system.

The main function of masks:
Masks should be worn anywhere you may come within a few metres (6 – 9ft) of other people. They work best when EVERYONE is wearing a containment mask because they prevent droplet shedding. (Droplets of moisture in your breath will, if you’re infected with COVID-19, contain live virus for two to three days before you start feeling symptoms. These droplets will hang in the air for a short period of time, flying up to several metres in whichever direction you’re talking or just breathing, and fall on objects and surfaces where another person can pick them up just by touching the tainted object.)

A quick guide to how SARS-CoV-2 spreads:
SARS-CoV-2 spreads almost exclusively from the droplets of moisture that we exhale. These droplets form an invisible cloud or plume up to two metres (6ft) or more in front of an unmasked person when they’re just breathing normally or talking normally. That plume can extend farther with heavy panting, shouting, or coughing. This plume can remain suspended in the air for up to several minutes. The smaller the droplet size, the longer it floats on air currents and therefore the farther it travels. Wearing a surgical three fold mask reduces the plume zone to 50cm (12″ – 18″) or less. Direct virus shed infection occurs when some of that plume is inhaled by another person. SARS-CoV-2 seems to enter the body almost exclusively through the lungs, where it causes lesions in the lung so it can get into the bloodstream and infect other organs. Droplets when they settle on things still carry virions (virus particles) and those can remain active for several weeks at least as far as we’ve been able to ascertain, hence the need to sanitise hands because if you touch a surface someone else’s droplet shed has fallen on and then touch your near your eyes, nose, or mouth, there will now be virions on your face near entry points to your lungs, and while virions are not technically alive and able to move, your indrawn breath can and will suck them across your skin and in.

Masks help reduce the amount of viral shed material in the air and on surfaces, and keeps everyone safe.

Hand sanitisation helps keep you safe. )


Types Of Masks

Typical basic cloth mask based on surgical mask design

>> Cloth Masks (Home made or commercially produced) –
These are made of layers of woven cloth of various types, and various constructions. They include neck wraps you can pull up to cover your nose and mouth, bandannas, multi-layer cloth masks, masks with pouches for PM2.5 filters (more on this a few paragraphs down) and more.

“Neck Warmer” style may form a quick emergency mask but they
seem not to be as effective as some claim,.

Single layer masks and lycra neck wraps are among the least effective. They offer little protection from droplets inbound, and in the case of some materials, it’s been tentatively suggested that they break up larger droplets in your breath and turn them into many more smaller droplets that stay in the air longer and thus travel further. The advantages of single layer masks are only that they are easy to breathe through, and they allow you to use a loophole (you zombie you!) to comply with mask laws. They offer very little protection to you or people around you and are at best a very basic containment mask. (They do however have one use, which I’ll put in the ProTips section.)

These construction and DIY dust masks aren’t really very suitable
but in a pinch you can use one to prevent yourself from
contaminating your surroundings

Three layer and three fold explained:
There are two kinds of three layer masks and two kinds of three fold masks.

Three layer cloth masks have three kinds of material and you can make them at home following any of the hundreds of tutorials online. Our preference is something like thin linen / denim inside, a layer of – amazingly enough – reusable shopping bag cloth – and a cotton tee shirt layer outside. The shopping bag ‘cloth’ is actually a spray mesh of tangled fibres and traps far more particles than any woven cloth. You have to pick the right kind of course – not solid plastic, and not the perforated kind. You can also use just a third layer of cloth if you’re willing to lose some effectiveness. They are still containment masks but also offer protection.

Pouch style mask, has changeable filter pads and a “relief valve” that is
meant to ease breathing but which is generally useless.

Three layer ‘pouch’ masks have a similar construction to the three layer but the middle layer is replaced with a PM2.5 filter pad. Advantages of a well made pouch mask are filtering down to 2.5 micron sized particles / droplets, offering fair filtering of particles in and out. If the ‘pouch’ isn’t well constructed and the filter can slip aside or there are gaps, you’re down to just a two layer mask in protection. Similarly, if the places outside the pouch aren’t quite solid and impermeable, air will for preference flow through the thinner two layer parts and never go through the filter. Advantages pouch masks are that a well made one with give you and people around you a far better level of protection than a single, and slightly better than a well made three layer, mask. I class these as both containment and protection masks, with the caveat that NO mask can offer complete protection.

PM2.5 particle filter pads for pouch masks.

Of the three fold masks, there are home made, and then there are surgical masks which I’ll tackle in a minute.

Making a three fold mask at home

Three fold cloth masks are made in a similar pattern to three fold surgical masks. A piece of material is pleated into three folds across and then the edges sewn. The three folds give a few advantages over a flat mask – you don’t have to sew several shaped pieces together in order to form a fairly well-sealing mask, and there’s a greater surface area so you can breathe a little easier through them. Other than that, they confer few advantages over an equivalent cloth mask. Of course, shopping bag cloth can be used for slightly better protection but they are mainly a containment mask with some benefit as a protection mask.

Now we come to the more esoteric masks that are hard to make at home:

Surgical three fold mask. manufactured of spray-spun cloth.

Surgical three fold masks are the simplest form of containment mask, the cheapest to buy, and if you have to buy masks, then these are the go-to answer. They are made of spray weave fibres at medical grade. They have a blue layer that helps impede droplets and lets them get tangled in the cloth, leading to a bit more trapping. The blue side should face outwards when you put them on.

The advantages of these masks are
They’re inexpensive
They’re medical grade proven in hospitals to stop medical personnel from shedding infectious material on vulnerable patients – IF WORN RIGHT.
They’re minimally obstructive to breathing, you can breathe easier in them.

The disadvantages are
They’re single use. That ‘inexpensiveness’ mounts up when you have to change masks every few hours, and shouldn’t re-use them if you touch them or take them off.
They don’t fit particularly well, there are air egress and ingress gaps all around. The three folds design makes them a little bit more fitted to your face than a flat sheet but it’s far from perfect.
They are already creating a large landfill problem. They aren’t organic cloth but a synthetic spray fibre so they break down more like plastic shopping bags.

I classify them as reasonable containment masks and minimal protection masks.

Surgical KN95 disposable respirator mask.

Surgical respirator masks are the next step up, and offer a lot of the best of both worlds. These are the KN95 masks you read about so much, with the ‘N95’ rating just meaning that they will filter 95% of particulate matter in the air down to (I think!) 2 microns or something. Respirator masks protect you from airborne droplets, and prevent your droplet shed from getting out, but they need to be custom fitted to prevent ANY air leakage. After all, if the air can get in a gap then it’ll take the path of least resistance and go there, carrying unfiltered droplets right inside the mask with you. (I do have a tip for the most common type of KN95 in use as pictured, see ProTips.)

The last paragraph lists the advantages of KN95 pretty clearly, they can work extremely well. But there are caveats and disadvantages:
They are costly (between $2 and $5 each at last check) and still only single use. So all the disadvantages of cost and landfill are still there.
Also, they are of far more use to medical staff than to most of us. When we buy a pack of ten or fifty KN95s we are taking that many masks off the available stock for frontline medical staff.
They are quite restrictive to breathing, like good 3 layer or pouch masks are. In order to filter small particles effectively, they have to force the air through very small pores.

Of course, if you’re at extreme risk if you catch COVID-19, then maybe KN95 masks make sense for you. But for most of us, a well made 3 layer or pouch mask makes as much sense.

Lastly, the more esoteric “gas mask” style respirator masks that have cartridges for various purposes are a very serious (and expensive!) alternative given their price can run up to several hundred dollars and cartridges up to $30 a pair for simple particulate filters. Enviro suits with positive pressure helmets would be your ultimate protection but come at a cost of thousands of dollars and require a fairly large filter / fan backpack that needs recharging the batteries and filters at regular intervals.

Things to definitely avoid are the more “gimmicky” masks out there with fan forcing and one way valves and all the bells and whistles. Each gimmick adds a point of failure, some are downright unsafe themselves, and most offer no real advantage. ‘Filters’ means that you have to breathe through a restrictive material, if it wasn’t restrictive it wouldn’t trap and retain the virus-bearing particles, and of course all these gimmicks come at an added cost.


There’s pros and cons to everything, masks are the hot topic of the moment and whatever we do we need to consider that AFTER the pandemic settles down to either be eliminated or become manageable, we still want to deal with pollution, environmental damage, and other issues. There are also the other things about masks such as inducing anxiety, panicked breathing, and a range of legitimate medical concerns

Another KN95 respirator mask, with a breathe-out relief valve.

“Herd protection” – if everyone wore a minimally effective mask, that would already strongly limit the spread of virus. Fewer droplets in the air means less chance of breathing in another person’s droplet shed. Since a reasonable mask can limit the droplet plume to 50cm, staying 150cm (1.5m, 6ft) apart and all wearing basic but effective containment masks makes a dramatic difference to the virus’ spread.

Since the other form of transmission (by touching a contaminated surface and then transferring the virus to the face or similar) is actually thought to be the MAJOR cause of COVID-19 transmission, masks also help dramatically limit the amount of infected droplet contamination on objects and surfaces. This is also the reason that most places of business offer hand sanitisation as you enter their place of business, so you don’t (hopefully) spread any virus acquired elsewhere on their merch…

And there’s ANOTHER one of those things. You may touch something totally saturated with someone else’s infected snot (gross thought I know but not so far off the money believe me) and not sanitise on the way out, nor on the way in to the next two places you shop at. At one place you put your hand on the stainless steel counter near the ticket machine, at another you pick up a few items of fruit and vegetables and then put them back.

Then you remember, and sanitise your hands on the way out of that last place, and you never get any virus near your face so you never get sick but you’ve still unknowingly contaminated all those places and so then it’s doubly important for those other people to sanitise THEIR hands. Heck, you might be one of the innocent ones in the story – but now can you see why sanitising is the most important thing you can do?

But masks are a HUGE part of that herd safety – they prevent virus in the air, virus contaminating surfaces, and stop a sizeable percentage of transmissions.

If you really truly absolutely can’t wear a mask then be doubly careful about what and whom you breathe on, make sure to cover coughs and sneezes with a handkerchief or tissue, and sanitise after each time you do cover a cough or sneeze. (Also, in ProTips, I’ll add some other helpful tips.)


I said KN95 respirator masks are single use. I also said that this is wasteful, polluting, and expensive.

The reason we’re asked not to touch our masks or our faces is because unless we’ve freshly sanitised our hands (or preferably, washed with soap and water for the approved 20 seconds) we could be transferring virus from whatever we’ve just touched to the outside of the mask or on the highway to our lungs and insides that SARS-CoV-2 needs. Also, any virions on the outside of the mask will shed off as we breathe, creating the exact opposite effect of what the masks are supposed to do.

So ProTip#1 is: _If you have to adjust your mask, do so only at the very top or bottom edges, or preferably at the sides by the straps / cords. Do it only after you’ve sanitised your hands.

Protip#2: _Sanitise your hands before removing your mask and afterwards. Place your mask in a plastic or paper bag you can close. Either dispose of the mask properly or take it home that way to sterilise it. (See next ProTip.)

Protip#3: _It appears that SARS-CoV-2 may be sensitive to certain wavelengths of UV light. There are some UV sanitisers out there that are advertised as being for mobile phones, and which a mask could conceivably be sterilised in. You’d need to make sure all sides got sterilised so probably two passes at least, but it might save some landfill. (Also see ProTip#5 for a few more things pertaining to mask re-use.)

Protip#4: _If, like me, you have a respiratory syndrome of some sort, then you’re in a bit of a pickle – on the one hand, a KN95 respirator mask is pretty much your ticket to remaining uninfected, but it’s harder to breathe through.

I found that I was okay if I started off with a single layer cloth mask or a surgical three fold mask for a few days, and wore it around the house where I didn’t need to be changing to a clean one all the time because the house is COVID-free, and then wore a pouch mask (and / or a KN95 alternately) for an hour at a time doing stuff around the house.

If I panicked (which I *almost* did a few times) I could safely remove it and put it back later without needing to consider sanitisation. Eventually I was so used to the KN95s that they no longer induced that panic asthma feeling.

Protip#5: _Good single layer masks do have one other use. I use a good quality stretchy tee shirt cotton mask to make my KN95 mask to conform to my face better. There isn’t any place left for air to leak when the KN95 (which could be a surgical three fold if you like) is gently pressed to your face by the cotton mask.

It’s important to make sure you get the tightness just right – too much and you’ll just crush the filter mask into your face, not tight enough and there’ll still be gaps where unfiltered air (and virus!) can get in.

The downside is *slightly* more impedance to breathing – but if I with almost thirty years of CODP can get used to this, so should many people be able to. Also, if you wanted, you could just wear a surgical three fold mask underneath.

This also has one other happy side effect for me: I don’t get a chance to touch the actual filtering mask as much with unsanitised hands so I can (at my own risk of course) re-use them and keep them out of landfill.

The outer stretchy masks obviously will need to be washed/sanitised after each use but one can just rinse in some antibacterial nappy wash and then wash with the normal laundry, and having several will keep one in outer masks continuously.

Protip#6: _Other masks. As shown in an image above, a construction ‘dust filter’ mask will provide you an emergency method to contain any virus you may be shedding, and probably has limited usefulness as inbound protection but will also benefit from having a stretchy mask over it to keep it snug to your face.

Also, a lycra neck wrap/warmer can substitute for the soft mask in the two-layer approach. I have a few I might try this out with. The important thing again is – not too tight nor too loose.

PLEASE NOTE that these are my opinions and as such do not constitute medical advice. Do some research yourself and then decide if you want to try anything I mention, remembering it is entirely at your own risk and volition.

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