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Study reveals which non-medical face masks protect best against spreading coronavirus

The team used a laser and a mannequin head to map out the paths of droplets as they were coughed and sneezed out.
Credit: Siddhartha Verma, Manhar R. Dhanak and John Frankenfield
The smallest respiratory droplets leak through a face mask constructed using a folded handkerchief. Despite the leakage, the spread of the droplets is impeded considerably compared to no mask use.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Masks: There are a lot of them out there. So which one should you buy to best protect you against the coronavirus? 

Florida researchers got to the bottom of that for you.

A study conducted at Florida Atlantic University, "Physics and Fluids," looked at the effectiveness of loosely-folded face masks, bandanna-style coverings, well-fitted, and multi-layer homemade masks, and off-the-shelf cone-style masks.

With masks being widely recommended and enforced in some areas across the nation, researcher Siddhartha Verma and his team experimented with the different materials to see how well they blocked droplets as they exited the mouth.

The team used a laser and a mannequin head to map out the paths of droplets as they were coughed and sneezed out.

“While there are a few prior studies on the effectiveness of medical-grade equipment, we don’t have a lot of information about the cloth-based coverings that are most accessible to us at present,” said Verma. “Our hope is that the visualizations presented in the paper help convey the rationale behind the recommendations for social distancing and using face masks.”

Their findings show well-fitted homemade masks with multiple layers of quilting fabric and off-the-shelf cone style masks work the best, reducing the number of droplets "significantly."

Loosely folded and bandana-style masks did still reduce the distance the droplet traveled by 1/8 to 1/2 for that of an uncovered cough.

Mannequins with no mask were projecting droplets much farther than the six-feet recommended for social distancing, according to the study.

But, the group said it is important to note that more research is still needed on the topic, as are added preventative measures outside of just wearing a mask every day.

“The main challenge is to represent a cough and sneeze faithfully. The setup we have used a simplified cough, which, in reality, is complex and dynamic, Verma said.

"It is also important to understand that face coverings are not 100 percent effective in blocking respiratory pathogens."

Verma said it is imperative that people use a combination of practicing social distancing, wearing face coverings and washing their hands until an effective vaccine is released.

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