In March 2020, the CDC did something unprecedented in the United States. They officially recommended that civilians should start wearing masks when out in public. Considering that the vast majority of Americans have never even worn a mask before, let alone worn one in public, it’s likely that the world of masks is completely foreign to you. When most people think of a medical mask, they think of the blue ones with the earloops that they see doctors wear in hospitals or in the movies. If they’re good enough for them, they must be good enough for you, right? Maybe. But maybe not. In this article we’ll examine the design of classic earloop face masks, how they work, and why they might not actually be the best mask for you.
Earloop Face Mask Design
First things first, let’s clarify how an earloop face mask works. Quite simply, earloop face masks use a filtering material that is held in position over the mouth and nose using two elastics that wrap around your ears. The concept is that the two elastics - or “earloops” - create tension that pulls the filter close to your face. Beyond this, there are two main types of earloop face masks.
First, I’m sure you’ve heard of the N95 respirator masks. These are specially designed to filter out liquid particles, as well as small airborne particles. In fact, it’s been shown that they filter out over 95% of small airborne particles, making them viable protection from airborne pathogens when worn properly. Of all the earloop face masks, they provide the most superior respiratory protection. However, given the shortage of these masks, they’ve been rightfully prioritized for front line health care workers. Furthermore, they do have some shortcomings based on their earloop design. More on this to come.
Then there are the classic blue earloop masks, which are commonly known as “surgical masks,” “medical masks,” or “procedural masks.” These masks use a polypropylene filter material that does a good job of preventing liquid droplets but does not filter airborne particles. Whereas the N95 masks filter out 95%+ of particles, surgical masks only filter out 60-80% of particles. They fit relatively loosely, which makes them easier to breathe through than N95, but the offset is a sacrifice in effectiveness.
In this article when we refer to “earloop face masks” or simply “earloop masks,” these surgical masks are ones we are primarily referring to.
The Problems with Earloop Masks
They don’t stop the mask from shifting
In an ideal world, once you properly put on a face mask, it should not move. By securing it in place you are maximizing the effectiveness of its protection against liquid and airborne particles. However, earloop face masks do not provide a secure hold.
With feeble elastic holds on each side of the mask, the mask shifts everytime you breathe, talk, and yawn. This displaces the face mask from its optimal position, reducing its effectiveness. On top of that, this movement of the scratchy material on your face inevitably causes itchiness. The constant need to satisfy these itches increases the number of times you will touch your face. And everytime you touch your face, you’re increasing the chances of passing germs, microbes, and bacteria onto the mask.
They don’t provide a proper seal
As a result of the weak hold provided by the elastic earloops, earloop face masks do not create a sufficient seal around your mouth and nose. The strongest seal is created at the two points of strap contact on both sides, but the strength of the seal decreases as you get further away from these contact points.
Plus, as your mouth moves and the mask shifts there are even larger gaps created between the mask and your face. This further weakens the quality of the seal as these gaps provide opportunity for liquid and airborne particles to enter.
Beyond constantly shifting and not providing a sufficient seal, earloop masks can cause discomfort. Have you ever tried wearing an earloop mask for an extended period of time? The constant rubbing of the earloops causes chafing on your cheeks and behind your ears. This creates discomfort that makes you constantly need to adjust the position of your mask. The more you touch the mask to make these adjustments, the more likely you are to be transferring viral or bacterial germs to your face.
They cause fogging of eyewear
A side effect of the insufficient seal of earloop masks is that air escapes upwards out of the top of the mask. For users who wear glasses or protective eyewear, this causes your glasses to fog and defog everytime you breathe. Not only is this a nuisance and a distraction, it also presents a safety hazard. The fog impairs your vision as you move, increasing the likelihood of tripping, falling, or causing other bodily harm. For workers who work with their hands, this creates a serious workplace hazard. With NCLOSD, the seal at the top is secure, which means that all the air you breathe in and out must pass through the mask, without any escaping through the perimeter. This eliminates the fogging of eyewear, providing a pleasant and safe experience.
Cloth Masks - The Least Reliable of the Earloop Face Masks
The shortage of masks across the US and around the world has led to the CDC imploring the public to create their own cloth masks at home. However, these masks are much less effective than professionally manufactured earloop face masks, and may actually be harmful. There are two main issues with cloth earloop masks: haphazard construction and pathogen breeding.
Firstly, the fact that the masks are being made at home using available materials like cloths and t-shirts means that the production quality is likely nowhere near as good as those made by professional mask manufacturers. Since mask fit is such a key component of mask effectiveness, this is problematic.
Secondly, these masks are non-disposable, meaning that they have to be washed after nearly every use. This is hardly practical and so the combination of non-medical materials and infrequent washings leads to moisture retention. Ultimately, this creates a breeding ground where pathogens can thrive.
Thirdly, these masks are often thick, making them prone to getting hot and sweaty. When wearing a mask for extended periods of time, this heat build up becomes very uncomfortable and can make it difficult to breathe. NCLOSD masks, on the other hand, are light and breathable. This makes them ideal for people who need to wear a mask for extended periods of time, such as retail or restaurant workers. Wear the mask for hours on end without developing the heat and moisture build up that compromise breathing, comfort, and effectiveness.
The Verdict on Earloop Face Masks
Clearly there are some limitations to the effectiveness of earloop face masks, especially with cloth masks. This had led to experts saying that there is limited scientific evidence that having the community wearing these masks is only marginally beneficial. Sure, they help somewhat as they protect from large liquid particles, but they are far from an absolute protection.
The truth is that earloop face masks are much more effective in preventing infected people from spreading the virus than they are in protecting healthy people from contracting the virus.
What’s concerning is that the earloop face mask design is so prevalent that it gives people wearing them a false sense of security. Users may assume that by wearing them they are completely protected, when in fact that’s far from the truth. People wearing these types of masks may feel an increased sense of invincibility that may lead to them making less safe decisions. They could feel increasingly confident in their safety when out in public, leading to less social distancing and diminishing sanitary practices.
Overall, what have we learned about earloop face masks?
- They are hard to come by as they’re prioritized for medical staff and front line workers
- They are effective in preventing infected users from spreading the virus, but are limited in their ability to protect healthy users
- Constant shifting of these masks reduces their effectiveness and does not provide an effective seal around the outside
- They are uncomfortable, causing irritation and itchiness that leads to you needing to touch your face more often
- When cloth is used as the filter material, it creates a breeding ground for pathogens
At this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “If earloop face masks have so many issues, what are my other options? Whatshould I be wearing?”
Thankfully, there is a better alternative.
Say Goodbye to Earloops...and Hello to Complete Protection!
Don’t let earloops hold your mask back.
The designers at NCLOSD set out to create a face mask that was more practical, more comfortable, and more effective than traditional earloop masks. We wanted to design and develop a reliable mask that everyday people could use with confidence.
Some of the keys focuses when designing this mask were:
- Incorporate a mechanism that would secure the mask in its place and keep it there for the entire duration of its use.
- Create an effective seal that would not allow liquid or airborne particles to sneak through the gaps that exist with traditional earloop masks.
- Eliminate earloops for improved comfort so that the user would not have to constantly fidget with the mask and risk contaminating themselves.
- Leverage materials with antimicrobial properties so that not only would the mask protect microbes from passing through, but it would actually neutralize them.
The result is the NCLOSD face mask. As you can see, the mask has completely eliminated the need for earloops. Instead, it uses a skin-safe adhesive to create a secure hold that also seals the edges of the mask. No more gaps, no more mask movement, no more irritation.
On top of this, the NCLOSD face mask uses an antimicrobial, antiviral, antibacterial material as its filter. This means that on top of filtering out over 95% of small airborne and liquid particles, it will actually neutralize any germs that come in contact with it. This means increased protection even if the mask material ever touches your lips or nostrils.
The best part? The NCLOSD face mask is available to the public at affordable prices. You can buy online from the comfort of your own home. Plus, sign up for a subscription to save money and receive a fresh supply of NCLOSD face masks every three months!