Does Wearing a mask help with poor air quality?

In this blog post, we will discuss “Does Wearing a mask help with poor air quality?” First, we will discuss the basics of air pollution. Secondly,  the article will outline the importance and scientific study of masks in air polluted regions. Additionally, the post will provide the significant features of a good quality mask. In the end, the post will give the recommended list of masks and the ones which you should avoid. 

Does Wearing a mask help with poor air quality?

Yes, wearing a mask protect us from air pollution. Contrary to the belief that you feel suffocated by wearing a mask, a properly fitted mask can filter out bacteria and particulate matter, which can irritate your respiratory system. The types of masks available in the market are as follows:

  • Paper dust mask
  • Surgical mask
  • Cotton mask
  • N95 mask
  • K95 mask
  • FFP2 mask

Let’s first see what air pollution is all about.

What do you mean by air pollution?

The introduction of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere is called air pollution. These poisonous pollutants can be of three states- liquid droplets, solid particles and gases. They can be chemical or biological in composition. There are two types of air pollution—outdoor and indoor air pollution. Outdoor is created in the outside environment, for example, vehicular traffic. Indoor is caused inside a structure, for instance, household activities. The sources of air pollution can be man-made as well as natural.

Various global scientific research has observed that short-term and prolonged exposure to air pollution has negatively affected human health. The toxic contaminants present in the air impact the vital organs of the human body, such as the heart, lungs and brain. The Lancet Study of 2015 has stated that ambient or outdoor air pollution has resulted in 3 million deaths annually worldwide. According to the United States Environment Protection Agency (US EPA), about 90% of Americans spend time indoors, and the concentrations of pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher. As per WHO, roughly 3.8 million people die just by exposure to indoor air pollution.

The terrible consequences on human lives have led to many initiatives and policies in various countries. For instance, you are charged in London if you are responsible for traffic congestion. In Paris, cycling on most roads is promoted by the local authorities. In Beijing, there is an environmental police force assigned in the city to maintain the health and well-being of the environment. Moreover, as per the World Economic Forum of 2018, the methane levels are regulated by leaders and policymakers by implementing new limits in the states such as Colorado, California and Pennsylvania.

As per the Clean Air Act, there are six criteria for air pollutants that can severely affect the health of humans of all ages. These pollutants are carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, lead, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and nitrogen. The human health impacts are as follows:

The pollutants, especially particulate matter (PM2.5), can deeply penetrate your lungs, and through them, they can be dissolved into the bloodstream. Such a dissolving process can make your blood oxygen-depleted and result in various dangerous effects. While the short-term effects recover quickly and can be treatable, long-term effects take much more years; as a result, WHO has already declared particulate matter as a carcinogen.  

WHO has set up the air quality guidelines to regulate the emissions; however, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has calculated its own AQI to safeguard the public health of Americans. 

Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has determined the air quality index (AQI) to know the air quality you inhale. The table given below will show how the air quality index looks like

Air Quality Index (AQI)Levels of Health Concern
(When the AQI is in this range)(air quality conditions are)
0 to 50Good           
51 to 100Moderate
101 to 150Unhealthy for Sensitive group
151 to 200Unhealthy
201 to 300Very Unhealthy
301 to 500Hazardous

The primary purpose of AQI is to inform residents about the impact of local air quality on their health. The Environment Protection Agency calculates the AQI for five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

The meaning of the Air quality index as mentioned earlier categories are as follows:

Meaning
Air quality is considered satisfactory; air pollution is of little or no risk.
Air quality is acceptable; some pollutants present in the air might be dangerous for a minority of people who are very sensitive to air pollution.
Members of sensitive groups may get ill effects. However, the general public is likely not to get affected.
This air quality level can pose a threat to everyone. However, members of sensitive people may experience more severe effects.
Emergency level of air quality; Entire population might be affected
Health alert: Every person breathing such air quality may get serious health issues.

 Thus, it is clear that excluding the first two levels are relatively good to venture out and to do various outdoor activities. However, the last three levels will give you or other adverse effects by inhaling dirty air.

All these kinds of initiatives and policies are great and will help to reduce air pollution significantly. It will also help to increase awareness amongst the citizens. However, it will require time to see the effect. Thus, it would help protect yourself from the harmful effects of air pollution. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to stay inside when the air quality is worst outside. Though it is inevitable to venture out, it is necessary to use protective gear such as a mask to safeguard yourself from airborne pollutants. Therefore, it is required to wear masks while doing any outdoor activities in pollution-intense zones.  

Can masks help us from air pollution?

Yes, masks can help us from air pollution. There are a variety of masks which are available in the market. Each of these masks has different uses and importance. The functionality of the masks depends on the composition and intensity of the pollutants.

What do the researchers say?

Researchers worldwide are still investigating the pros and cons of face masks. One of the recent analyses made in Beijing, China, deduced that N95 masks are most useful in areas with the worst air quality. The researchers observed that blood pressure was lower when facemasks were not on the mouth. However, the blood pressure levels were normal among individuals with heart diseases. Even the oxygen levels were much better, thanks to N95 masks.

Another study in Shanghai noticed that blood pressure levels were maintained after wearing N95 masks in particulate pollution. Thus, it is prominently observed that masks significantly help when you are exposed to air pollution for a short period. However, medical experts say that usage of masks on the lungs and the association of masks with prolonged exposure to air pollution is still to be deeply investigated.

Besides, as said earlier, you spend most of the time inside your house. Thus, there are chances of you getting an allergy when you clean the closets and furniture. At such times, it is necessary to protect your nose and mouth.

Let’s see the typical features of the masks.

What are the typical features of a mask?

Pollution Filtration

You might have observed that many masks are given a label as N90, N95, and N99. The numbers after the letter denote the percentage of the particles it can block. In addition, the masks are allocated a protection factor. This protection factor is the percentage of pollutants that the mask cannot remove.

If a mask has a protection factor of 10, it denotes that you are protected from only 10% of the pollutants and the remaining 90% is not removed by it.

For example, paper dust masks are not effective against high levels of air pollution. But masks with HEPA filters can properly minimize the exposure to fine particles. Such a type of mask is called N95 respirators. These masks have a protection factor of 5, which means that it blocks 95% of the fine pollutants and cannot remove the rest of the 5%. On the other hand, N90 can obstruct 90% of fine particles.

There are other masks, such as KN95 and FFFP2. Both types of masks are similar to N95 and can block fine particles. Thus, you can protect yourself from elevated pollution levels by wearing these types of masks.

While the filters of the masks can block most airborne pollutants, their efficiency is reduced for the particles tinier than 0.3 microns. That means that you can be saved from bacteria, but there are fewer chances of viruses and microscopic particles being filtered out from the mask. These tiny particles are produced from various sources such as vehicular traffic, combustion of fossil fuels, and natural events such as volcanic eruptions, wildfires, etc.

The N95 masks cannot remove toxic gases from the atmosphere. But, if your mask has a feature of activated charcoal, then it can certainly reduce the contact to such gases. These masks are expensive, but I feel it’s worth an investment rather than spending bills on medical expenses.

Seal of the Mask

The effectiveness of a mask is primarily dependent on the seal. So how to know whether your mask has a good seal? A good seal properly fits your mouth and nose. In addition, it creates suction to your face during inhalation.

For instance, the flexible disposable masks, this type of suction should be visible. This suction should result from the paper bending inwards, and it should take a concave surface. A high-quality sealing method is made up of fabric or silicone, which allows the mask to fit the shape of your face comfortably. A good seal will also aid in keeping particles from leaking in or out of your mask.  Such a feature will also help any further spread of infected aerosol particles.

Ventilation

Wearing masks doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to suffocate and feel irritated every time you wear them. Ventilation is another important aspect of a mask. You should be able to breathe correctly after wearing it. Ventilation is essential when you are doing some outdoor exercise or having medical conditions and venturing out for more extended periods. In addition, the exhaust valves in some masks can help become the mask moist from inside due to condensation.

What can be limitations why wearing or choosing a mask?

You might feel odd if you alone are wearing a mask in the crowd. However, it’s better to be safe than to be sorry. If you are going out in unhealthy levels of air pollution, then it’s better you ‘mask on’. If anybody feels claustrophobic in enclosed spaces, they might feel difficulty in wearing a mask.

I have also seen people wearing masks on the neck without covering the mouth and nose. At times, some people cover the mouth properly but only keep their nose open, hanging out of the mask. I strongly recommend you wear a mask that gets appropriately fitted to your nose and mouth. Then, you check with the guidelines which are given above. After all, you are not an alligator to keep your nose open.

Besides, masks may not correctly cover your nose and mouth if you have a long beard or an unshaven look. There might be some gaps from which polluted air can enter the nose. I also feel that it is difficult to cover the nose and mouth of babies due to fitting issues and fear of suffocating these little ones.

Which are recommended masks to protect yourself from poor air quality?

The best quality mask filters up to 95% of the air pollutants down to 0.3 microns. These masks should follow the internationally recognized standards such as the following:

  • N95 Standard (United States)
  • FFP2 Standard (Europe)
  • KN95 Standard (China)

The masks designed using these standards are tested for 95% efficacy against the following air pollutants:

  • PM10
  • PM2.5
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses of various droplet sizes
  • Pollen
  • Mould Spores
  • Household Dust

However, these pollutants cannot enter the nose if the mask is fitted correctly. Therefore, the mask seal should properly shape your face to avoid the leakage of airborne particles from the mask. In addition, the tight-fitting of a mask is crucial. These types of masks should have adjustable straps to seal your nose and chin airtight.

Below, I am giving you the recommended list of masks.

Recommended List of Masks

N95 Standard masks

N95 masks are NIOSH-42CFR84 approved. These masks have three levels of filter capacity such as 95%, 99% and 99.97%. This standard is the USA approved.

N95 Standard MasksWhy do I recommend it?
AccuMed BNX N95 Mask 95% particulate filtration efficiencyFive-layer design filters and have a nose clipBreathable and comfortable 
BASE CAMP M Cross Dust Face Mask  99% particulate filtrationSix-layer filtersBreathable and comfortable, nose clipDoesn’t fog the glassesReusable and washable
GVS N31000 99.9% filtration efficiencyComfortableAdjustable nose clip 

FFP2 Standard Mask

These are of European standards and is EN 149-2001 approved. These masks have 94% filtration capacity.

FFP2 MaskWhy do I recommend it?
RANTO 50 Pack FFP2 Mask Face Masks 94% particulate filtration efficiencyFour-layer design filters and have a nose clipBreathable and comfortable, good headband designDisposable
Powecom FFP2 Protective Face Masks 94% particulate filtrationFive-layer filtersBreathable and comfortable,DisposableNot suitable for babies or patients having respiration problems

KN95 Standard Mask

These are GB2626-2006 approved masks, and China decides these standards. These have 95%  of efficiency.

KN95 MasksWhy do I recommend it?
WWDOLL KN95 Face Mask  95% particulate filtration efficiencyFive-layer design filters and have a nose clipPowerful Protective Barrier3D Mask DesignDisposable
Boncare KN95 Face Mask  94% particulate filtrationFive-layer filters3D Mask DesignDisposablenose clip

Which masks are not effective in air pollution?

I know there are a variety of masks available in the market that can match your outfits and look trendy. But trust me, they will not help you with air pollution. There are different types of protective scarves, fabric masks, and cotton face masks are available in convenience stores. Paper dust masks don’t block any air pollutants. Fabric masks are composed of cotton, polyester, rayon and other materials.

Exceptional Case

Excluding cotton, the other fabrics can irritate your face. Although, you can use a cotton mask if you are dusting and cleaning closets and houses. These fabric masks efficiently protect against large infected droplets from cough and sneezes but not from fine and coarse particulate matters. A recently published research of the Colorado State University stated that double and triple woven layers of cotton masks are better at filtering out the particles than the other fabrics; it can protect from wildfire smoke too.

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

How do dust storms affect air quality?

Does air quality affect dogs?

Does rain improve air quality?

Conclusion

We discussed “Does Wearing a mask help with poor air quality?” in this blog post. First, we discussed the basics of air pollution. Then, the article outlined the importance and scientific study of masks in air polluted regions. Additionally, the post provided the significant features of a good quality mask. In the end, the post provided the recommended list of masks and the ones which you should avoid. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Does Wearing a mask help with poor air quality?

Should I wear a mask for bad air quality?

Yes, you should wear a mask for bad air quality. However, the most effective way to stay safe from high levels of air pollution is to stay inside.

Do face masks stop air pollution?

Yes, some face masks reduce a person’s contact with particulate pollution. However, before buying, you should check the filtration system, the mask seal and the ventilation system of the mask. In addition, the mask should fit nicely on the face.

Which mask is best for air pollution?

Experts say that masks having filtration valves are most useful against air pollution. The following masks are best for air pollution:

  • N95 masks
  • FFP2 masks
  • K95 masks

How can you protect yourself from bad air quality?

You can protect yourself from bad air quality by following these steps:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Use mask
  • Stay indoors when ambient air quality is poor
  • Use air purifiers indoors
  • Clean the indoors frequently

Do surgical masks filter dust?

Surgical masks don’t effectively filter the dust particles. The efficiency of these masks is 33.3%.

Do masks help with allergies?

Yes, research shows that masks can help in reducing allergy symptoms, thus reducing your chances to fall sick.

Reference

Empowering the world to breathe cleaner air. IQAir. Available at: https://www.iqair.com/us/blog/air-quality/air-pollution-masks-what-works-what-doesn-t  

N95 respirators, surgical masks, face masks, & barrier face coverings. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/personal-protective-equipment-infection-control/n95-respirators-surgical-masks-face-masks-and-barrier-face-coverings  

Ries, J., 2021. Will your COVID-19 Mask Protect you from wildfire smoke? Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/will-your-covid-19-mask-protect-you-from-wildfire-smoke#Other-things-you-can-do-to-stay-safe

Vidal, S., 2019. Can you beat air pollution with masks. Down To Earth. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/air/can-you-beat-air-pollution-with-masks-67776  

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