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Woven fabric like Cotton is good for making jeans, shirts but not masks

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New study recommends the use of “woven fabric for clothing, and N95s or FFP2s or KF94s for masks.”

COVID-19, like many other viruses, is spread predominantly through airborne particles. Infected people exhale virus-containing particles into the air, which can be inhaled by someone else, who subsequently becomes infected.

A preponderance of data supports the use of masks as a first-line barrier against disease transmission by airborne transmission. Because not all masks are made equal, the newest wave of the pandemic, fueled by the omicron strain, prompted public health officials to prescribe more protective face coverings.

Woven fabric, unlike ordinary air filters and masks, is made up of fibers twisted together into yarns. As a result, there are two length scales: fiber diameters and yarn diameters.

Scientists use 3D images made by confocal microscopy to see the air flow channels. They then simulate the airflow through these channels and figure out how well they filter out particles that are a micrometer and larger in diameter. The report concludes that filtration effectiveness is low for particles in this size range.

“Masks are air filters, and woven fabrics, such as cotton, make for good jeans, shirts, and other apparel, but they are lousy air filters,” adds co-author Richard Sear, from the University of Surrey. “So, use woven fabric for clothing, and N95s or FFP2s or KF94s for masks.”

According to the flow simulations, when a person breathes through cloth, the majority of the air passes through the spaces between the threads in the woven fabric, carrying more than 90% of the particles with it.

“In other words, these relatively large gaps are responsible for cloth being a bad material to make air filters from,” explains Sear. “In contrast, the filtering layer of an N95 mask is made from much smaller, 5-micrometer fibers with gaps that are 10 times smaller, making it much better for filtering nasty particles from the air, such as those containing virus.”

While previous studies have found comparable results, this is the first to mimic particles passing directly through gaps in woven fabric.

Good masks should have the “two Fs: good filtration and good fit,” according to Sear.

“Surgical masks fit badly, so a lot of air goes unfiltered past the edges of the mask by the cheeks and nose,” says Sear.

Image Credit: Getty

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