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Corona Virus: Which mask should you wear?

How to choose the right mask for protection against Corona


In our earlier post titled “How to travel safely once the lockdown ends”, we had strongly advised travellers to wear a mask while travelling. However, many of you had follow-up questions on it.

The questions most asked were.

  1. How effective is a mask against the Corona Virus?
  2. What kind of mask should I use while travelling?

We understand the dilemma. There is a lot of conflicting information out there. Accurate info is the need of the hour as many of you maybe travelling once the lock-down ends.

In this post, we are going to tell you every thing about using a mask to protect yourself from the Corona Virus. We will cover everything from “How effective is a mask” to “How to choose the right mask”

All the conclusions and suggestions are arrived at based on analysis of scientific data and information published by reputed agencies.

Please note that we are only talking about masks for regular travelers in this article. This advice is not for medical personnel, frontline care-givers etc.

This article is written keeping the traveler in mind. However, it is applicable to all other lay people too,

Let us get started.

How effective is a mask against the Corona Virus?

There are claims out there such as “masks are absolutely useless”, “masks only protect yourself and not others”, “wear only N95 masks” etc out there. We are going to cut through this clutter and find answers.

In order to understand if a mask is really effective against the Corona virus, we need to first understand how the virus spreads.

How does the Corona Virus spread?

The Corona Virus spreads basically through 2 means;

  • Droplets Transmission
  • Airborne Transmission.

Droplet transmission may occur when a person who is infected (with or without symptoms) comes in close contact (1 m distance) with a healthy individual. In such cases, there is a high chance that respiratory droplets (containing the virus) of the infected person may enter the mouth, nose or eyes of the healthy person during talking, sneezing, coughing etc.

Droplet transmission can occur directly (e.g. Infected person coughs on Healthy person) or indirectly (e.g. healthy person touches surfaces that the infected person coughed on and then touches his/ her mouth, nose or eyes).

As per the World Health Organisation, Direct Droplet infection is the primary mode of transmission of the Corona virus.

The second mode of transmission is Airborne Transmission. Airborne Transmission occurs through tiny virus particles are suspended in the air and gets transferred to healthy individuals. This can happen even over distances greater than 1m.

There is no evidence of Airborne transmission of the Corona Virus in normal circumstances. WHO indicates that Airborne transmission may happen only during specific medical procedures.

There is no evidence for any other kind of transmission apart from the above two.

Hence the only kind of transmission we need to be worried about is droplet

How effective are masks against the Corona Virus?

The question can be rephrased as "How effective are masks against droplet transmission of corona virus". And the answer is VERY.

Scientific studies by researchers at the University of Cambridge have also shown that good masks can filter the droplets to a large extent and prevent infecting the wearer.Even simple cloth masks have a near 70% filtration capability against droplets.

There are 3 specific ways a mask can help:

  1. An good mask can protect the wearer from direct droplet transmission from infected individuals (through cough, sneeze etc).
  2. A mask worn by an infected person will help prevent the respiratory droplets travelling through the air (while coughing, sneezing etc) and infecting healthy persons.
  3. Wearing a mask will make you conscious of touching your own face. This reduces the chance that you will transfer the virus particles (if any) on your hands to your mouth, nose and eyes.

How to go about choosing a good mask?

Here are a list of things to consider when buying a mask. They are listed in the decreasing order of importance.

  • Effectiveness:

    • An ideal mask should be able to filter the virus particles and prevent them from entering your mouth and nose.
    • Please note that simple cloth masks are not ideal for preventing droplet infection. However, they work very well if everyone in the population wears them. This prevents droplets from the infected person from reaching others in the first place.
    • In case you come in close proximity with an infected person who is not wearing a mask, there is a possibility that his/her respiratory droplets may enter your mouth and nose. Only a mask with a good filter can prevent this.
    • There are different kind of filters used in mask. Based on tests, some of the filter materials effective against the tiny Corona Virus particles are the following:
      • Polytetrafluroethylene (PTFE)
      • Non-woven PolyPropylene (PP)
  • An effective mask has at least 3 layers:
    • An outer cloth layer
    • A middle filter layer
    • An inner cloth layer
  • Fit and breathability

    • While high protection is essential, it is also important that the mask fits you very well and you are able to breathe through it.
    • There is no point in having a highly effective mask which you cannot wear.
    • Make sure that the mask completely covers your mouth and nose and at the same time is comfortable to wear for long periods of time (e.g. on a long haul flight)
    • Look for masks that have nose clips. These prevent the mask from slipping away from the nose.
  • Re-usability and Washability:

    • As you are going to be using this mask for an extended period of time, it helps if it can we washed and re-used.
    • Please note that all masks are not re-usable. Masks such as surgical masks have to be discarded after a few hours use.
    • Data shows that the following masks can be washed and re-used without compromising effectiveness.
      • Cloth masks with PTFE filter
      • Cloth masks with Spunbond non-woven PP filter
    • Quality of the elastic rope

      • We usually tend to underestimate the importance of this.
      • The elastic used for attaching the mask needs to be high quality so that it can last long..
      • Bad quality elastic ropes lose their elasticity quickly. This is accelerated when boiling/ washing in hot water (for sanitizing)
      • A loose fitting mask increases risk of droplet infection.
      • If you cannot find a mask with a good elastic rope, go for one that can be tied behind your head
    • Aesthetics:

      • It helps if the mask is fashionable. Who doesn't like to travel in style.

    Types of masks available in the market

    Buying a mask can be daunting task, considering the myriad of choices available in the market. Here are the common options listed in decreasing order of effectiveness.

    • N95 Masks:

      • There are becoming very common these days. You can see everyone from your grocery vendor to delivery boys wearing them.
      • However, please note that N95 mask are specifically used for preventing airborne infections.
      • Not only is this mask uncomfortable to wear, it also needs to fit tested (every time you wear it) by a medical expert to ensure maximum effectiveness.
    N95 Mask
      • N95 masks are recommended only for medical personnel. That too only for those who are performing specific procedures, and are at high risk of airborne infections.
      • This is not meant for common people while travelling, going for grocery shopping etc.
      • Studies show that N95 masks can filter more than 95% of the droplets.
      • A few models of the N-95 mask are washable.
    • Surgical Masks:

      • Surgical masks are commonly used by medical personnel and other frontline caregivers.
      • These usually has 3 layers.
    Surgical Mask
      • Studies show that these are as effective as N95 masks (more than 95% filtration efficiency) in preventing droplet infection.
      • These are meant for single use only, and cannot be washed and re-used.
    • Cloth masks with filter 

        • Studies have shown that Cloth masks with good filters such as PTFE, Non-Wopen Polypropylene (NWPP) etc work very well in preventing droplets
        • These are comparable to surgical masks in effectiveness.

      Cloth mask with filter

        • In our opinion, these are the best masks for travelers.
        • Not only are they effective enough, they are also breathable, washable and re-usable.
      • Simple cloth masks:

        • There are as the name states, simple masks usually with just 2 layers of cloth. They do not have a filter.
        • These have been recommended by the American CDC and by the government of India.
        • However, studies show that these masks are not as effective as the other masks in  preventing droplet transmission.
        • Studies show that a double layer cotton mask can filter up to 70% of the droplets.
        • Here are instructions provided by the American CDC on how to create a simple cloth mask.

          How to choose the right mask for travel

          Choosing a mask is a compromise between comfort and effectiveness. As a thumb rule, the more effective a mask is, the more difficult it is to wear.

          For instance, the highest level of protection is offered by an N95 mask with a respirator. However it has to be fit tested by a medical expert each time it is worn for optimal functioning. This is neither a practical option nor a requirement for travellers. 

          Surgical masks are as good as the N95 masks for preventing droplet transmission. However, these need to be disposed after a few hours of use, and cannot be washed or re-used.

          Our suggestion to travellers is to go for a cotton cloth mask with intermediate filter layers (Spunbond PP, PTFE etc). Not only are these comparable in effectiveness to the surgical mask, these are also washable and re-usable.

          Keep these in mind while using the mask

          • Never touch the front of the mask as it maybe contaminated. If you do, wash your hand with soap/ sanitizer immediately.
          • If you have purchased a cloth mask, it is advisable to boil it for 10 mins (for sterilization) before 1st use. Make sure you read the instructions to ensure the mask is capable of withstanding the boiling.
          • Most importantly, a mask alone cannot protect you. You must also practice other measures such as washing hands frequently, not touching your face etc.


          We recommend a cotton cloth mask with a good filter for travellers. Something that is reusable, washable, and effective.

          N95 maks are only meant for medical professional doing specific procedures. It is not for lay people.

          And that's about it. We hope this covers everything you need to know with regards to using a mask to protect against the Corona Virus.

          Although this article has been written for travelers, it applies to other laymen too.

          If you have any further questions or suggestions, please drop them in the comments section below.

          Smooth Travels!

          Please note that all the information given in this article are based on data and information available as on the date this article was written. The situation is still evolving and the advice given may become irrelevant based on new information coming to light. BorderTribe shall not be held liable for any consequences faced due to the information given in this article. 

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