Can Masks Capture Coronavirus Particles?

Can homemade DIY and surgical masks protect against the coronavirus

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, many people are wondering if masks capture coronavirus particles. It’s a lot to ask billions of people around the world to become mask experts overnight.

Quora: Can masks protect us from Wuhan coronavirus

There is a lot of conflicting information. Do surgical masks capture coronavirus particles? Media outlets like US National Public Radio have claimed they don’t. Fortunately, scientists have already accumulated hard data on air pollution masks that can answer these questions.

How Big Are Coronavirus Particles?

First things first: we need to know how big the coronavirus is. Scientists have already used electron microscopes to measure how big the corona virus is. Coronavirus particles (fancy scientific name “virions”) are spheres with diameters of approximately 0.125 microns (125 nm). The smallest particles are 0.06 microns, and the largest are 0.14 microns.

Coronavirus virus particle size

This means coronavirus particles are smaller than the PM2.5 cutoff, but bigger than some dust particles and gases.

Size of coronavirus particle pm2.5 and bacteria

Now that we know how big the particles are, do masks capture coronavirus particles? Let’s break this down into two simpler questions.

 

1. Can Masks Capture Coronavirus Particles?

The skeptic case: 

Amid the outbreak, some people have said: The coronavirus (and other viruses for that matter) is tiny, and masks are so thin. They can’t possibly get tiny coronavirus particles. Business Insider used this logic in their article whose title claimed masks “probably won’t protect you.”

 

Coronavirus & Mask Livestream

Wondering whether masks work to protect you against the coronavirus? Check out our livestream recap covering all the info here!

 

The scientific test:

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh tested different common masks by running a diesel generator (to mimic car exhaust) and piping the exhaust through the masks. They used a particle counter to see how many particles made it through the mask. Here’s my super scientific rendering of the setup:

 

 

One important detail: the particle counter they used measured particles as small as 0.007 microns. That’s over 10 times smaller than the coronavirus particle diameter. We’re talking about truly tiny particles here!

They tested a whole range of masks, and here’s what they found:

N95 mask surgical masks Respro particle capture test data

 

3M industrial filters were able to capture over 95% of particles down to 0.007 micron. Given that news outlets have claimed surgical masks can’t capture nanoparticles, it’s particularly surprising that the surgical mask was able to capture 80% of the tiny particles.

Masks Capture Car Exhaust

OK, but that was car exhaust. Maybe there’s something different about virus particles? In another study, researchers shot actual virus particles at N95 masks. The masks captured over 95% of virus particles.

N95 Masks Capture Virus Particles

Even poorly performing masks captured over 90% of viruses. The researchers chose two N95 masks that scored poorly in an earlier study, yet even these poor-performers still blocked 94% of particles under the heaviest air flow rate.

N95 Masks Capture Virus Particles

Conclusion: Masks – including surgical masks and N95 masks – can capture viruses and even particles over 10 times smaller.

 

2. “OK, they can capture particles even smaller than the coronavirus, but when you wear them, all the air just leaks in the side.” 

 

The skeptic case: 

Mask works in theory, but those tests aren’t on real faces! When you actually wear them, you can’t get a good enough fit, so they’re basically useless.

The scientific test:

To answer this question, you need a really expensive fit-test machine. Fortunately, we were able to get our hands on one machine to test a range of masks.

 

Pollution masks N95 fit test TSI 3M

 

The blue tube is sampling air outside the mask, while the white tube is sampling air from inside it (more details on the mask fit-test methods). 

Smart Air co-founder Anna Guo and Beijing-based Dr. Richard Saint Cyr also did fit tests, so I combined all of our data. Here’s how well the masks worked on our faces:

 

Pollution masks respirator fit test data haze

View the full test data »

Several 3M masks were able to capture over 99% of tiny 0.01 micron particles (10 times smaller than the coronavirus), even while on people’s face. What’s more, surgical masks were surprisingly effective, capturing 63% of the tiny virus-sized particles.

Read more: Scientists randomized nurses to wear masks and tracked who get infected. Here’s what they found. »

Can Masks Protect People From The Coronavirus?

Bottom line: Masks can filter particles as small as 0.007 microns – 10 times smaller than viruses, and much, much smaller than the PM2.5 cutoff. What’s more, they work surprisingly well, even while people are wearing them. Surgical masks don’t work as well as N95 masks, but they are cheaper and more readily available. This makes them useful alternatives when other masks aren’t available.


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David Caloca

Hi
I find this very interesting. I think you should also consider the fact that the virus is transmited mostly throughout the Flugge droplets, which are droplets produced by humans by coughing or sneezing, wich measure to 0.5 mcm to 10 mcm.

– Epidemiology of Respiratory Infections. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-26961-6_28
– Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19): The epidemic and the challenges. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924857920300674

Richard Baker

I am a old army medic, now a retired RN. Want to help others and thinking out of the box by making DIY face masks for shelters that have no supplies. Putting a mask on persons with symptoms. Will layers from hippa furnace filters be useful material to capture virus? Any other ideas?

Liz - Smart Air

Hi Richard, I’m really glad to read all those comments offering DIY masks for your local hospitals! We are working on more tests in the following week and will publish the results as soon as possible! Stay tuned!

Enzo

The science doesn’t base itself upon a single or a couple of studies.
A sistematic review outcome is that there is no evidence that the mask are useful. The same things says WHO. If a mask filter a particle, this doesn’t mean that protect you…
https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/epidemiology-and-infection/article/face-masks-to-prevent-transmission-of-influenza-virus-a-systematic-review/64D368496EBDE0AFCC6639CCC9D8BC05

Yaman

Have you even read your own reference? It says right there in the summary “Further studies … are required to better define the effectiveness of face masks …” This is one of those further studies. What is the problem?

SIMONE LOPES DE MATTOS

Please,
I am writing a PhD thesis in Engineering and I need scientific references on the interception of particles smaller than 0.3μm in the N95 filter mesh.
You can provide me with references of scientific articles.
I would be very grateful
[email protected]

Kelly

I’m curious what happens when you use a mask like this many times? It’s impossible to buy a stack for several months.

Does the filtering capacity stay the same? Is it ok as long as you wash your hands after touching the mask? And what about indirect contact? For example you touch the mask, then touch your head, arm, clothes whatever. You wash your hands, but then touch the same spot again, then touch your eyes/nose/mouth/optional vagina. What then? (and yes I realize this is probably way out of your area of knowledge).

Liz - Smart Air

Hi, Kelly, we have tested masks that have been used for 30 days, then link to the data: https://smartairfilters.com/en/blog/how-long-air-pollution-masks-last-lifespan-data/
About indirect contact, I just try to wash my hands the first thing after going back home, then deal with the clothes and masks, and wash my hands again.