Surgical and Cloth Face Masks – What to Buy and Where to Purchase

Assume that any n95 mask in a store or online is counterfeit except Where to purchase non-counterfeit N95 masks from small U.S. manufacturers February 17, 2021

Updated 2-11-21 I am very worried about the new variants and am upgrading my face masks. At least two of the variants have been found in the Bay Area, where I live. The new United Kingdom virus variant, B.1.1.7, is expected to increase our risk of getting an infection by 50% or more by the end of March, per the CDC. We can see our future by looking at what is going in the U.K. The new South African variant,B.1.351, may be even more contagious. Current vaccines may not work well on it. You may need to upgrade your masks. Surgical and cloth face masks – what to buy and where to purchase is very important.

Another post on this blog was done at the same time as this post. KN94, KN95, and Elastomeric Respirators: What and Where to Buy February 4, 2021

NOTE: At the Super Bowl game February 7, 2021, the attendees wore KN95 masks. How playing it safe allowed the NFL – and the rest of us – to have a Super Bowl4 minute video and a story about how they did it with the help of the CDC. Very, very interesting including what was risk and what was safe with lots of data from daily resting and genetic sequencing. Relevant for many sports.

Below is information on cloth and surgical masks and where to purchase them.

Why I am upgrading my face masks

CLOTH FACE MASK WITH ADJUSTABLE EAR LOOPS

Both the U.K. and South African Variants are in my county. Upgrading my face masks is very important to me to protect other people. Even more important,

I will be getting my second Moderna shot on February 18, but I don’t want to take a chance infecting others. That is what I have always feared the most. About two weeks after I get my second shot, I plan to get my car repaired, rent a car, bring back my cleaning person, and other delayed activities. Because I am 77 with diabetes, I am at high risk for infection and have been very careful. 

I am having some survivor guilt. I got my shots before other older and sicker people have been able to get shots. I want to “play it forward” by being very careful. Infecting someone else has always been my greatest fear.

The N95 mask is the “Gold Star.” The tightest fit and the safest mask. Not very flexible. It can be hard to find one that fits. But, only counterfeit masks are available for purchase in stores and online. I am now using KN95s.

Face masks are for sale everywhere: grocery stores, Target, hardware stores, Amazon, etc. What should you look for?

Do the cloth masks have 2-3 layers plus a strong bendable nose bar and adjustable ear loops? Almost all the n95 masks are fake Chinese counterfeits. Legitimate N5 masks are only available from medical supply services, which don’t sell to consumers. There is still a bad shortage. 

How do you know if a surgical mask is legitimate? We see the blue “surgical” masks everywhere. On Amazon, there are too many choices. Which are on the FDA list? What should you look for?

A friend was recently shopping at stores and noticed face masks for sale. Her local Target had only one type of mask in many colors that required a filter insert, which was not available for purchase there.

Next, she was shopping at Kohl’s and saw face masks for sale. She purchased a $10 cloth mask that was excellent and had all the criteria I list below: bendable nose bar, adjustable ear loops, and 3 layers, including a filter layer. However, she wears bifocals and has some difficulty seeing when walking or going up stairs.

Do you need to upgrade your cloth face mask?

Are you an essential worker who could be exposed to the virus when working? Or work in an office where mask-wearing is not enforced. If so, you may want to upgrade your face mask. Your personal risk depends on how many hours a day you are near other people. If they don’t wear face masks, you are at relatively high risk when working.

 If you are an appraiser, for example, who goes inside homes but are only inside for a half-hour, your risk is lower. If occupants won’t leave the home or wear face masks, your risk is increased.

What to look for in a cloth face mask

FACE MASK EXTENDER STRAP

I use a 3-layer cloth mask that fits tight to my face with a bendable nose bar and adjustable ear loops. If a mask does not have adjustable ear loops, I use a face mask extender strap. If you need additional protection, you could use a surgical mask under the cloth mask, with adjustable ear loops. I am using KN95 masks, which are safer and fit well.

TOP PRIORITY!! Your mask MUST fit very close to your face. You Must have a bendable nose bar. You don’t want to let as little as necessary unfiltered air into or out of the mask. I see many people using the blue “surgical” masks. Almost all are not tight on the sides of the face. Many lack a bendable nose bar to keep air from outside coming in. A better alternative is a cloth mask or a cloth mask with a surgical mask underneath. I am using KN95 masks.

ADJUSTABLE EAR LOOPS

Adjustable ear loops are useful for keeping your mask close to your face. One cloth mask I used in the past kept getting loose even after trying to shorten the loops. I am now using a face mask extender strap (available on Amazon), a strap to tighten the mask loops. It can also make the mask fit better by putting the loops over the ear and then under the ear.

Mask fitters for surgical (procedural) masks and loose cloth masks

2-11-21 CDC Recommends using mask fitter, sometimes referred to as a mask brace, and it’s designed to help you get a perfectly snug fit with your face mask. You wear the mask fitter over your mask, either securing it behind your ears or tying it behind your head. The CDC specifically called these out in its just-released guidance on how to get the most efficient mask possible.

The reason for the recommendation: The CDC is stressing the importance of fit when it comes to masks, in order to help offer the maximum amount of protection possible. CDC researchers conducted a study found that, when used properly over a surgical mask, a mask fitter can offer more than 90 percent protection for the wearer. That’s nearly as much protection as an N95 mask!

The CDC now recommends mask fitters for maximum protection—here’s where to get them

What to look for in a cloth mask

Comfortable to wear. My 3 layer cloth mask is very comfortable. Cloth masks vary. My old n95 mask was not comfortable as it was rigid and difficult to fit correctly. I used it in high-risk situations. Fortunately, I didn’t wear it for long periods.

Different sizes. Most masks are one size for adults. Some have children’s masks. For a good fit, size appropriate to your face is important. My standard cloth mask, Livinguard, has 4 sizes. I use a medium size. I have seen some surgical masks in 2 sizes.

Disposable vs. washable convenience. How many times have you used a surgical mask? A lot more than one time? Or you did not wash your cloth mask every day? I had both of those bad habits. Which do you prefer? My 3 layer cloth mask only has to be rinsed once a week and lasts for a long time before being thrown out. I knew I would not wash my mask every day or remember to throw out a mask after being used. When I need more safety I use a disposable KN95 mask

Price. Compare the cost of one-use disposable masks per use with washable cloth masks. This is one of the reasons I selected my 3-layer cloth masks ($24.95 each). Price is higher on cloth masks, but they are re-usable.

Flexible material for cloth masks is helpful. Rigid masks, such as N95, must be carefully fitted the face.

Ties are better than ear loops, standard for n95 masks as you can get the mask close to your face for a good fit. The ties go over and behind your head. Some other types of masks may have them as well.

2-10-21 CDC Says wear two masks – cloth and surgical (procedural)

Surgical underneath 3 layer cloth mask is usually recommended. This also keeps the cloth mask from getting dirty and less washing may be required. Masks on the CDC list use propylene.

The shift follows the release of an agency study that found wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask, or modifying a surgical mask for a snug fit, made for better protection, reducing aerosol exposure by about 95%. See next link.

2-10-21 Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021 MMWR Report. Written in academic style, but understandable. Details of their limited research studies.

Other options are a mask with multiple layers of fabric, according to the CDC recommendation. Double-masking with two disposable masks, or with a KN95, isn’t recommended.

2-10-21 CDC Improve How Your Mask Protects You Very good infographics

2-10-21 CDC Says Double-Masking Offers More Protection Against The Coronavirus NPR article with mages and links on where to get them.

Also see my recent post: Should you wear two face masks? January 28, 2021

A good option when walking with few people nearby, for example, is wearing a surgical mask with a good cloth mask on a lanyard to put over the surgical mask. A friend who uses two masks wears bifocals and has some difficulty seeing when walking or going up stairs. She uses this method.

If double-masking is hurting your ears, try these tips to relieve the pain Some good tips.

Good mask tips from the CDC

2-10-21 CDC Improve How Your Mask Protects You CDC Very good infographics

2-10-21 Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021 MMWR Report. Written in academic style, but understandable. Details of their limited research studies.

“CDC conducted experiments to assess two ways of improving the fit of medical procedure masks: fitting a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask, and knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask and then tucking in and flattening the extra material close to the face. Each modification substantially improved source control and reduced wearer exposure.”

The CDC is not changing its guidelines officially, but says the study highlights what it already advises. “We continue to recommend that masks should have two or more layers, completely cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly against your nose and the sides of your face,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a White House briefing.

The CDC tested two simple modifications to improve the performance of commonly used masks by “double masking” and “knotting,” which involved folding mask edges inward and knotting ear loop strings to flatten excess fabric and reduce gaps on either side of the face.

A knotted medical mask can block 63% of particles that could contain coronavirus from escaping, up from the usual 42%, and when both an infected and uninfected person knot and tuck their masks, the cumulative exposure is reduced by 95.9%, the CDC found.

CDC: How to Wear Cloth Masks – Overall guidance How to take your mask on and off. Cold weather and fogging glasses tips.

Your mask MUST fit close to your face. The Primary Criteria for buying Cloth and Surgical Masks.

Everyone’s face is different: long and thin vs. wide. Cheek bones vary, Weight loss or gain can change your face. Age is a factor as muscles tend to sag. About 6 years ago I lost 40 pounds and my face got much thinner. I am 77 and have noticed that my face is sagging more.

Masks with different sizes can really help. My face is small and most masks are “one size fits all.” One of my cloth masks has 4 sizes. My other one has two sizes. Both fit very well.

Buy one or two masks to see how they fit you. It took me awhile to find the masks I am using now.

Adjustable ear loops, face mask extender straps and bendable nose bars an can really help.

The first KN95 masks I purchased fit me well . I was lucky. There were many comments on Amazon about how small they were for many people. My face is small, so it fit me well. I have one to a friend with a small face and she did not like the mask.

How to test for mask leaks

Every time you put on a mask, do a “user seal check.” (Source: CDC) Put your hands over the mask to block the unfiltered air moving through it, and exhale gently. You shouldn’t feel air coming out the side or up toward your eyes. Then, test to make sure it stays in place by moving your head side to side and all around. Try reading out loud and see if it slides around when you talk.

Several other methods that are used
– Hold your mask up to the light (typically one layer mask). If you can the fibers, you definitely need a better mask material.
– If you can blow out a candle, you definitely need a better mask.
– Breathe out. Does air come out on the top of the mask? If so,  adjust the bendable nose bar. Leaks on the side of your face on a cloth mask require adjusting to make it tighter or get a smaller mask. Leaks on surgical mask require face loop adjustment. Using an extender bar may help.

What is your risk tolerance?

Everyone’s opinion of their acceptable risks is different.

You can use different masks depending on your risk tolerance. What activities do you do outside or inside your home?

Mask choices and your risk tolerance. Evaluate your situation. Everyone is different.
Low risk mask – safer – surgical or cloth mask
Moderate risk – two masks: cloth and surgical masks
High risk is more dangerous- n95 alternatives

Walking is low risk if done with someone in your household or distance from other walkers. A cloth or surgical mask is okay. But, if walking on a crowded trail, 2 masks may be better. You can always take off one of the masks if it becomes less crowded, Or use a lanyard and pull the cloth mask up.

Meeting outside with friends socially distancing, at least 6 ft and preferably 10 ft. is riskier than walking.

Grocery store risk depends on the store’s size, the width of the aisles, and ceiling height. The primary risk is crowding. Small convenience stores are more risky, such as at a gas station with narrow aisles and easily crowded.

Meeting with people inside a home, restaurant, or small space that are not in your household is very risky. Everyone must be masked, preferably two masks. I would wear a KN95 mask. 

Types of Cloth Face masks

Blue surgical masks are about 70% effective. A cloth mask may be between 20% to 70% effective, depending on its construction and the fabric that is used. Unfortunately, there is no standardization on cloth masks. Surgical masks are regulated.

2-layer is okay, but 3 layers with two cloth layers are better. Another option is a mask with a pocket for a HEPA or carbon filter. My cloth mask has polypropylene, but I plan to get another 3 layer mask with a HEPA filter pocket when I am in higher risk situations, such as a crowded room.

Face masks with filter inserts

There are different types of face mask filters, ranging from basic pieces of cloth to carbon filters and HEPA filters. Face mask filters will typically sit in between the two outer layers of the mask and further filter out particulate in the air.

A 3 ply mask, including a filter pocket, lets you upgrade your mask with a filter. I also required a bendable nose bar and preferred adjustable ear loops. Search Amazon for “cloth face mask with filter pocket.”

Where to Buy Filters for Reusable Cloth Face Masks 1-27-21 Good information plus a list of Amazon filters.
How to buy face masks with filters, according to medical experts Excellent information with useful links: 6-20-21 Good explanations, with references. However, their masks are not on Amazon, or the mask list may be out of date.

Surgical masks do not protect you very well from airborne particles

Source: CDC If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose.

Surgical masks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others. A surgical face mask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures.

Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and your face.

5 Hacks And Tips To Make Your Face Mask More Protective Some good surgical masks tips

Polypropylene filters used in surgical and some cloth masks

Polypropylene is great as a physical filter but has another benefit: It holds an electrostatic charge. In other words, it uses the power of static electricity. Think of the static cling that can happen when you rub two pieces of fabric together. That’s basically what’s happening with this fabric: That “cling” effect traps incoming — and outgoing — droplets. “That’s what you want — the cling is what’s important,” said May Chu, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health

And unlike other materials, polypropylene keeps its electrostatic charge in the humidity created when you breathe out, says Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University

Some experts are saying three layers are best.. Look for certification seals and the ASTM rating, one, two, and three. A three is the best that you can get for surgical masks. My surgical masks are three layers and are on the FDA list.

Link for FDA lists of masks. Buying surgical masks on this list is best. There are only 17 masks. 

How to use FDA lists of EUAs for surgical masks to check out a mask

The list of surgical masks is short and easy to use.  For surgical masks, I used “Appendix A: Authorized Surgical Masks” with 17 items.

Not all the masks on the list had a link to Amazon when I googled the name, but some did. I selected a mask from Amazon after looking at the description and reviews of 3-4 masks. My mask had a 4.5 rating, 1,215 reviews, and many comments.

How to find a specific cloth or surgical face mask on Amazon

I tried to find a face mask, “Wovenx, ASTM Level 3 Face Mask” on Amazon, but too much came up on the page. Then I googled the name, and the Amazon link came up.

Why a tight-weave 100% cotton is a good choice

That’s because at the microscopic level, the natural fibers in cotton tend to have more three-dimensional structure than synthetic fibers, which are smoother, says Christopher Zangmeister, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That 3D structure can create more roadblocks that can stop an incoming particle, he explains.

What about Gaiters?

Gaiters are popular because they are often made of lightweight, breathable material and don’t require ear loops; they conveniently sit on your neck, like a scarf.

A single-layer gaiter, alone, isn’t adequate. But when it is doubled up, it is highly effective at blocking a range of particle sizes. In experiments done by Virginia Tech professor Linsey Marr, a doubled-up gaiter blocked more than 90 percent of the particle sizes tested.

Face masks I wear now – cloth and N95 Where to purchase non-counterfeit N95 masks from small U.S. manufacturers

3 layer cloth mask. Livinguard Safety Mask $29.95. 4 sizes. Polypropylene Filter Layer. The most comfortable mask I use. “Can be washed up to 30 times. If used daily and washed weekly under normal usage conditions, the mask can be used 210 times, effectively replacing the need for 210 single-use masks.” shop.livinguard.com

The mask is advertised on a popular Covid Podcast, “In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. He is advising the White House on the pandemic response for a 4 month period, starting soon after Biden’s inauguration. All his ad profits go to charity. I don’t think he would advertise a product that was not very good.

I also use another cloth mask, which has all the features I want:

Bespoke Face Mask – Very good. Available at Kohls store or online.

Has all my criteria:
– Bendable nose bar
– Adjustable elastic ear loops
– 3 layer
– Built in filter lining (E-PTFE, top level filter)

– 2 sizes: S/M, L/XL. Also has children size masks.
– Flap above the nose keep glasses from fogging

They are available from Kohls in store or online. $10 list price each but often on sale. Online ordering: Kohls requires a minimum $75 purchase for free shipping. Otherwise shipping cost is $8.95. Comes in many colors.

If you google bespoke face masks, the link for Kohls comes up. Other links show also, but I don’t know if they are for the face masks. Direct link to Kohls.

A friend bought these at Kohls while she was shopping for clothes and told me about them. I purchased 6 for $30, two sets of three masks.

I use a N95 mask when I am in a more risky situation.Where to purchase non-counterfeit N95 masks from small U.S. manufacturers

Standard surgical masks do not have adjustable ear loops. The mask does not fit tight on my face. I would only use them in very low risk situations.

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