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Common Sense Masks

 A recent article in the New York Times (1) lamented the lack of common sense in America’s management of the pandemic — echoing the common sense principle behind the design of SmitMasks from the very beginning.  The best way to manage a pandemic is to deploy sensible, practical measures that the majority of the population can implement, not unrealistic strict rules that people just can’t understand or follow.  Under-doing isn't good, nor over-doing it. A sensible middle-ground is best. The same should be applied to mask policy, including choosing the type of masks.  

These are examples of over-doing it:

* Creating a highly technical mask with bells and whistles costing $250 a mask.  (seriously?  Who’s going to buy it?)

* Double-masking.  Most people can’t even breathe in one mask, how can people double-mask?  

* Asking people to wear masks outdoors even when they’re keeping their distance, even when doing sports.  Or, asking people to wear masks outdoors, EXCEPT those doing sports who are huffing and puffing ten times more than those not doing sports. (??!) 

* Wearing gloves.  Even with gloves, sales people can still touch their noses, touch their masks, and then hand products over to customers.  Wearing gloves just means viruses go on the gloves instead of your hands, but as long as you are continuing to touch things with the gloves, viruses will still be transferred.   

* Visors. How can a piece of plastic with huge gaps block airborne particles?  It is only helpful if somebody closely is going to splash droplets of his/her sneeze/cough/speech directly onto your eyes, but that is unlikely if people are keeping their distances and wearing masks.  

Under-doing it:  Refusing to wear masks no matter where and no matter what.

Very early on, people who have been paying attention understood that Covid transmission occurs mostly indoors.  For mechanical engineers who understood fluid transmission patterns, it was obvious. Analysis of cases from China noted only 2 cases from outdoor transmission out of 7300 cases (2), and that was when the two people talking didn’t know about keeping their distances.   When Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered outdoors in the summer of 2020, many of them without masks, contamination numbers did not spike.  Yet, even after this fact was established, many governments continue to ask people to mask outdoors, even while distancing (3). 

The common sense approach to outdoor/indoor masking was observed by the author of the New York Times article (1), Alec MacGillis, in Germany where they understood that masks are really mostly necessary indoors.  When people entered an indoor space like stores or the metro, they masked up; when they left the indoor space to go back outdoors, they removed their masks. It is clear to many people that outdoors is mostly safe when people are keeping their distances and masking outdoors is mostly unnecessary.  By asking people to obey rules that make common sense, people will be happy to go along.  When governments force people to mask outdoors even when they are alone or far apart, people can sense that it does not make sense, and then feel the need to not comply.  

We also need to adopt a common sense approach to choosing our masks.  A common sense approach will be beneficial to everybody and be the easiest to implement.  The difference between asking a doctor for advice versus asking an epidemiologist for advice — they don’t necessarily say the same thing.  A doctor gives you advice that is good for you personally, but not necessarily good for the common good.  For example, if you had asked a doctor which is the best mask to wear, he or she would tell you it’s the N95 because that’s the mask that really protects you almost 100% if you wear it right (tightly sealed).  However, it is not practical because the N95 is very uncomfortable to wear, is expensive, and is in most cases not necessary.   

On the other hand, if you had asked the epidemiologist, he or she would tell you that if you are not surrounded by high virus loads (like medical workers or being in a small non-ventilated space with many people for long periods), a cloth or surgical mask would suffice, coupled with other precautionary measures (ventilation, distancing , etc.).  Epidemiologists design group solutions that would be good for the whole group, so N95’s can be reserved for people in high risks (mostly medical workers) and “regular” masks can be worn by the rest of the community going about their daily lives.  Doctors give advice to benefit the individual at the highest level, but it can be an overkill in the case where the whole group is already taking precautionary measures. 

The fight about cloth masks or surgical masks is also unnecessary.  Multiple studies show that masks mainly help the community by blocking emissions/ respiratory jets from the wearers and protecting others (like this one from MIT researchers (4)).  The American Institue of Physis reported that either cloth or surgical masks block more than 97% of emissions (5).  (also see our other blogs). To what extent masks protect the wearer is still unclear, as most reports compared groups rather than individuals and most mask experiments are imperfect. There is one Danish study with 3000 participants showing that masks do not significantly protect the wearers (6). Another study showed that a 1% leak in masks led to a 50% reduction in efficacy, which means that most surgical or cloth masks don’t protect the wearer much.  Therefore, a common sense approach would be to encourage people to wear a comfortable mask that they are willing to keep on, be it surgical or cloth.  Instead of forcing people to “over mask” with N95’s or double-masking, both being very difficult to bear, choosing a more comfortable mask will lead to wider adoption and benefit the whole group.  

Furthermore, given how surgical masks are toxic to our skins and our planet, we strongly recommend reusable cotton masks. 

The benefits of wearing an overly protective mask (N95’s) are smaller than successfully getting everybody around you to don a decent and comfortable mask like SmitMask.  That’s why we’re also calling SmitMask a “Common Sense Mask”!  Get one today! 

by SmitMask


(1) New York Times, October 12, 2021, “An Ocean Away, I Found Some Common Sense on Mask Wearing” by Alec MacGillis

(2) Indoor Air, Oct 31, 2020, “Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2” (2 out of 7324 cases from outdoors, from two people standing closely having a long conversation)

(3) New York Times, April 22, 2021, “Do We Still Need to Keep Wearing Masks Outdoors?” 

(4) CNBC, April 23, 2021, "MIT researchers say time spent indoors increases risk of Covid at 6 feet or 60 feet in new study challenging social distancing policies”

(5) American Institut of Physics, Dec 22, 2020, “Masks not enough to stop COVID-19's spread without distancing, study finds. Even though common mask materials block most of the droplets that spread the virus, that may not be enough at close distances”

6) New York Times, Nov 18, 2020, “A New Study Questions Whether Masks Protect Wearers. You Need to Wear Them Anyway”