Wearing two masks is better than one, says America’s leading infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci.
“If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on the Today show.
Fauci’s advice comes at a time when the world is grappling with newer, more mutant strains of the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. These strains are said to be more transmissible than the primary strain of SARS-CoV-2.
And his logic is simple. Just like layering during winters protects you from cold, using two masks significantly reduces the penetrability of your face covering. It’s more likely to do a better job of protecting your nose and mouth from infectious respiratory droplets.
The double filtration will also ensure that the pesky gaps left by an ill-fitting mask around your mouth and nose are adequately covered.
The concept of double masking is also backed by some scientific studies that stressed that wearing two masks is not at all suffocating.
"With a more transmissible virus, that means every exposure has increased likelihood of leading to spread," Andrea Love, an immunologist and microbiologist was quoted by cnet.com. "We must be more stringent with our behaviour now, including social distancing, minimising trips to public places, avoiding indoor spaces and always wearing a mask."
"But, not just any mask will do," Love emphasizes. "Quality matters."
What works and what doesn’t?
Experts recommend the highest-quality N-95 masks that authorities across the world have discouraged people from buying hoping to save them for frontline workers.
N-95 masks are made from fibres woven with an electrical charge that can trap errant particles – like a sock that sticks to your pants in the dryer. They are currently the best defence against large and small particles. Masks in this category are also known as "filtering facepiece respirators" or "disposable respirators”, reported CNN.
If people wore an N95-type mask for just four weeks in risky settings, “It would stop the epidemic,” Dr Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told CNN.
For “maximal protection,” a person can also wear a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask, with the surgical mask acting as a filter and the cloth mask providing an extra filtering layer and improving the fit, stated WebMD.
If your two masks fit well, this combination "should produce an overall efficiency of over 90% for particles 1 micron and larger, which corresponds to the average size of respiratory aerosols that are most important in mediating transmission of SARS-CoV-2," cnet.com reported.
One, or even two cotton masks, are, however, redundant, Love emphasised. Many cloth face covers offer little to no protection, she said, depending on the material, number of layers and fit, which is why health experts recommend layering.
In fact, WebMD recommended a three-layer mask with “outer layers consisting of a flexible, tightly-woven fabric that can conform well to the face and a middle layer consisting of a nonwoven high-efficiency filter material.”
Also, disposable facemasks must not be confused with surgical masks. They are different, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said time and again.
Is double masking necessary all the time?
One needs double layering only when the risk is high. Like in outdoor settings where there are people in your vicinity, it is best to double up. However, if you’re out for a walk and are unlikely to come in contact with anyone, a single mask should suffice, say experts.
And with the efficiency of the vaccine still uncertain, doubling up may be the best option before us because as Director-General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Dr Balram Bhargava said a couple of weeks ago, masks may never go away.
“We don't know how much of the population we'll have to vaccinate to break the virus transmission. What we know is that we've been able to control the pandemic in the country by following COVID-19 appropriate behaviour... I am of the opinion that masks will probably be the last to go and probably may never even go,” he was quoted as saying by Business Today.