Disposable vs. Cloth Masks: Different Mask Types and Uses

Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is a key preventative measure to take to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.  Combined with frequent hand washing and social distancing, PPE, including face masks, can help slow the spread of COVID-19, supporting the health of entire communities.  “If you put a mask on someone who is ill, they are less likely to spread the virus to others,” says Tom Frieden, M.D., a former director of the CDC. “That includes people who don’t have symptoms. We know people who don’t have symptoms can spread the virus.”

Broadly speaking, there are three different types of face masks available today: surgical masks, industrial-grade respirators like KN95, and cloth masks.  Each type of mask provides a different level of protection and comfort for the wearer.

Cloth Masks Surgical Masks (aka Medical Masks) KN95 Masks (respirators)
Loose fitting Loose fitting Sealed around nose and mouth
Reusable Disposable Disposable
Protects the wearer’s nose and mouth from droplets, splashes, and sprays Helps protect the wearer from COVID-19
Helps protect others in case the wearer has the virus Helps protect others by reducing exposure to the respiratory secretions of the wearer Helps protect others by reducing exposure to the respiratory secretions of the wearer
Should include multiple layers of fabric Filters out large particles of air Filters large and small air particles, including 95% of bacteria, germs, air pollutants, and allergens
Only of value if combined with frequent handwashing and social distancing (according to the Mayo Clinic)

The surgeon general recommends that people wash their hands before putting on a mask and keep from touching their faces while wearing masks - whether disposable or reusable.

While cloth masks might seem more beneficial based on their ability to be reused, they come with a risk.  If people don’t sanitize them properly after every use, they might no longer provide the necessary protection.  

  • During this pandemic, NYC has recommended that people hand or machine wash cloth face masks once a day, and only wear them when they are completely dry.  The masks should be kept in a location where others will not touch them and where they will not contaminate any other surfaces.  
  • A study published in The BMJ in 2015 found that healthcare workers using cloth masks were more likely to be infected with respiratory diseases than those who used disposable surgical masks, even when workers washed the cloth masks at the end of each of their shifts.  
  • Two additional laboratory studies (one published in 2013 in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness by scientists with Public Health England, and one in 2008 in Plos One by scientists in the Netherlands) demonstrated that masks made of household materials (t-shirts or bandanas, for example) aren’t as effective as surgical masks at blocking the particles of a virus found in droplets and aerosols.  
  • Industrial hygienist Renee Anthony said that while the CDC recommends that people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain distancing, the cloth masks don’t provide sufficient protection when employees work huddled together.  In that instance, you need industrial-grade masks, like KN95.

The KN95 masks block more potentially harmful air particles, and provide more protection for the wearer and for anyone around them when compared to looser fitting masks.  Companies providing employees with disposable masks can feel confident that each employee is starting the day with a completely hygienic mask free of any contamination.  For these reasons, we believe that disposable masks are worth the investment.