Advisor to the Sindh Chief Minister Murtaza Wahab has come under fire on social media for suggesting cloth masks are as effective as surgical masks, if not more. People were quick to remind him that medical health professionals have advised otherwise.
Wahab uploaded a picture to his Twitter of himself wearing a cloth mask. With the picture, he uploaded a caption that urged people to use cloth masks, which he called comfortable, trendy and washable.
"Save your money, save the environment and save lives," he advised.
Sure, reusable cloth masks would be better for the environment than disposable surgical masks, which will almost certainly not be disposed properly, as with most of our waste, and find itself in wastelands and sewers but in this case, the safety surgical masks provide trumps the bad points.
Cloth and sponge masks are not the most effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19 virus because there are several requirements for a cloth mask to meet before it's as safe as a surgical mask.
Dr Faheem Younus, a Pakistani-American doctor who's been at the frontline in the US leading the charge against Covid-19, has also been very active on Twitter throughout the pandemic, giving people his expert medical advice regarding the virus. One user responded to Wahab's statement with a tweet by Dr Younus. "Ditch cloth masks," he said.
A man who claimed to be a doctor also chose to comment, saying that cloth masks are not the most effective, and that Wahab should refrain from recommending them.
"A simple cloth mask with a filter will not help," he said, attaching evidence for his claim in a later tweet.
"Should we really be allowed to wear cloth masks?" wondered this user.
The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health agency of the United States, concluded in a study that, "the filtration, effectiveness, fit, and performance of cloth masks are inferior to those of medical masks and respirators.
"Protection provided by cloth masks may be improved by selecting appropriate material, increasing the number of mask layers, and using those with a design that provides filtration and fit. Cloth masks should be washed daily and after high-exposure use by using soap and water or other appropriate methods," it read.
The simple understanding here is that masks require closely knit and tied layers to stop penetration of aerosol particles. Covid-19 travels in the air as these particles and hence a simple single layered mask will not be very effective in stopping it, and will most certainly let it slide past. That's why doctors recommend wearing multiple masks when wearing cloth masks, or making sure that your cloth mask is multi-layered to ensure effective filtration. Hence, the simple solution is to wear surgical masks, and if you want to feel safer, you can always layer up and wear two masks, as experts recommend.
There are acceptable cloth masks, but they should meet certain requirements.
"Check for filtration, breathability and fit when choosing a fabric mask," advises the WHO.
The organisation says that fabric masks should consist of three layers for them to be acceptable and effective. The first layer, the inner most layer, should be made out of an absorbent material, like cotton. The second layer, or the middle layer, should be made out of non-woven non-absorbent material, such as polypropylene. And the third and final, the outer most layer, should be made of non-absorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend.
You can read the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention's extensive guide to masks here.
There are a lot of things to look for when wearing cloth masks, so it's best not to take them lightly. Do a lot of research before buying cloth masks and make sure to wash them often. Wahab is right that they're better for the environment, but don't compromise on your health. Stay safe everyone!