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September 01, 2020
In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen high demand from consumers and businesses for face masks that are protective, comfortable, and affordable.
Face masks were hard to come by in the first few months of 2020, which led to significant price gouging and many people even resorted to making their own masks until other options became more readily available. Countless businesses like Denali responded to this shortage by producing disposable or reusable masks for consumer and commercial use, but which face mask is best?
To help you find the best face mask for your unique needs, we’ve created this comprehensive guide on the differences between disposable and reusable masks. Whether you’re a consumer looking for the best daily option, or a business looking for a way to protect employees — here’s what you need to know when trying to determine which face mask is best.
The two most popular types of face masks are disposable single-use masks (sometimes called “surgical masks”) and reusable cloth masks. While there are other types of protection such as N95 respirators (which are typically reserved for healthcare workers) and face shields, these are far less common which is why we’re focusing on the most accessible options.
In terms of protection, most disposable masks are made of non-woven material (typically polypropylene) which has about a 96.35% filtration efficiency at blocking viral aerosols according to a 2013 study. The study found that disposable surgical masks were about 3x more effective at blocking transmission than homemade masks, and part of this is because homemade masks tend to be made out of materials like cotton which have a lower filtration efficiency (74.6%).
Interestingly enough, a study by the University of Illinois suggests that even reusable masks made of highly permeable fabric like cotton can be just as effective as medical-grade masks if they utilize 2-3 layers. For this reason, many businesses that sell masks are making them with 3-layers to maximize protection.
It’s important to note that the fit of the mask also affects protection, as a mask that doesn’t fit properly decreases its effectiveness. Disposable masks also present an increased risk if the wearer is frequently switching to a new mask when it gets dirty or when they move to a new location (such as throwing them out when you leave a building).
Overall, disposable masks may offer more protection than homemade cloth masks, but an industrial-made multiple layer mask may be just as effective and offer other benefits as detailed below.
In almost all cases, a disposable mask will be cheaper than a reusable mask on a per-unit basis. However, the benefit of a reusable mask is that you can wear it multiple times which saves you money in the long run.
The price of face masks vary, but disposable masks typically cost around $0.50 - $1 per mask and reusable face masks usually cost around $5 - $10 per mask. Disposable masks are single-use, meaning you’ll need to throw them out after each day (sometimes more often), while most reusable masks last about 6 months.
Comparing the cost of these masks over time, if you wear a mask every day for 6 months (with 31 days in each month), you’d need 186 disposable masks which might cost anywhere from $93 - $186 depending on the price you paid. By comparison, you could spend $5 - $10 on a single reusable mask which would last you the same amount of time.
Cost is especially important for businesses, as they may need to provide masks for hundreds or thousands of employees each day which can get quite expensive. If you are looking to purchase a large number of masks for employees, talk to the mask retailer and see if they may be willing to offer a discount for bulk orders.
Comfort is hard to measure because it tends to be a matter of personal preference, but it is important to consider if you’ll be wearing a mask for long periods of time on a daily basis. Disposable masks tend to be made of lightweight polypropylene, whereas reusable masks may be a bit thicker depending on the number of layers and materials used. If you do opt for a reusable mask, make sure its comprised of lightweight materials. Although cotton is soft, multiple cotton layers may feel heavy on your face after extended use. Ideally, use a mask that features a lightweight polypropylene exterior later and a cotton interior layer for maximum protection and comfort.
With disposable masks, you’re typically limited to elastic straps, whereas reusable masks may come in straps or ties. Elastic straps are quick to put on and help to ensure a tight seal, but may become uncomfortable after extended use. Ties enable you to loosen straps as needed for more comfortability, but you’ll need to retie it each time you put the mask on. Think about this when trying to determine the best face mask for your needs.
Disposable face masks generate waste because they need to be thrown out each day, which is creating a problem for the environment. It’s estimated that disposable face masks take up to 450 years to decompose due to the plastics they’re made from, and each month during the COVID-19 pandemic about 129 billion of these masks are being discarded.
These masks are not recyclable, and even when thrown away they usually find their way into the ocean much like other trash. Over time, the plastics in these masks break down and smother animals in the ocean. Some animals may also confuse the plastic for food and choke on pieces, and others may become entangled in them.
Environmental advocates encourage people to opt for reusable face masks because they significantly reduce the environmental impact compared to disposable alternatives.
If it isn’t obvious by now, we clearly recommend going with a reusable mask because it’s better in pretty much every category. If you’re trying to find the best face mask for your unique needs, opt for a reusable option. Stop wasting money by throwing out masks, make the switch to a high-quality reusable mask today!
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