Research shows which face masks work best - do you have the right one?

As the resurgence of COVID-19 has hit Australia, face masks are becoming a part of everyday life and, for people in Melbourne, a mandatory one.

And now research has shown which masks are effective and which ones aren't - and according to the study some masks are actually riskier than no mask at all.

Dr Eric Westman from Duke University in North Carolina, USA, wondered if a make-shift mask was actually better than nothing. His findings were recently published in Advanced Sciences journal.

"Like the common sense of just putting your hand in front of your face, we really thought that any mask would be better than nothing," he explained.

Unsurprisingly, the most effective are the medical-grade coverings - N-95 masks then surgical masks. Cloth masks come in third, followed by a makeshift scarf or bandana mask.

Dr Westman is an internal medicine specialist, who is not dealing with cases of Coronavirus.

But he felt that he could still make an impact on stopping the spread. Early on in the pandemic, he knew that masks were cricial to prevention and investigated how he could distribute masks to vulnerable people.

He learned that some essential workers, such as doctors and nurses, had access to the highest grade of protection, while others, such as bus drivers, did not.

To correct this imbalance, Dr Westman raised thousands of dollars to get masks for frontline workers left unprotected during the pandemic. With that money, he wanted to ensure that whichever masks were purchased were the most effective and practical available. This was the inspiration behind his mask-effectiveness study.

He tested the effectiveness of masks while speaking, as it is the most common action that can spread the virus through particles in the air. 

"You might not be sick and you may be spreading the virus through these particles just by speaking," Dr Westman explained.

His research found that the best masks at preventing particle spread were medical-grade masks, used by doctors, but also available at many pharmacies. Hand-made cotton masks also provided relatively good coverage, preventing the majority of spread.

Most notably, scarves, bandanas and neck gaiters or snoods actually increased particle spread to more than that with no mask at all. 

"We attribute this to the fleece, the textile, breaking up those big particles into many little particles," explained Duke physics professor, Martin Fischer, who assisted Dr Westman with the experiments.

"They tend to hang around longer in the air. They get carried away easier in the air. So this might actually be counterproductive to wear such a mask.

"So, it's not the case that any mask is better than nothing."

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