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How to choose COVID masks so winter doesn’t leave yours a soggy, failing mess

Winter starts Monday, but the weather’s curious effect on face masks has already changed.

Your mask has gotten wet outside, hasn’t it?

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Now, when a sub-freezing wind kicks up, we know that a wet cloth against your skin risks heat loss and skin damage.

But, also, the reason most of us are wearing masks outside — to protect each other from the coronavirus — is diminished when our masks get wet.

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There are fabric face coverings that keep your skin warm and dry (drier than cotton or paper), but do they stop the rotten virus, too?

Let’s take a look.

As I’ve reported, ski resorts across Michigan and the U.S. are requiring face coverings in lift lines, on lifts and at times when you’re not six feet apart. Ice rinks and paths from South Bend to Elkhart require masks throughout their facilities.

None of them specify what kind of face coverings to wear. But Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart took the extra step of saying that neck gaiters, bandannas and scarfs wouldn’t be enough for its Winter Wonderland light display — only masks would do — as Executive Director Eric Garton emphasized a “safer environment.”

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I’ll get to the fabrics. But first, I spoke with Dr. Keyna Martinez, a family physician with Beacon Medical Group in Bremen who has studied the issue, about key facts to consider in wearing any mask:

—”Your highest risk is not on a ski lift,” she says of the winter breezes that help to dissipate virus particles. “Where it matters most is when you walk indoors.”

—A wet or dirty mask is like a basket. Once it’s full, Martinez says, it cannot hold any more of the virus particles. They just pass through.

And that’s also why you should wash a cloth mask every day that you use it, she says.

—That makes this next point ever more critical. Before you step indoors — where the virus is more apt to hang in the air — switch to a dry mask. Have at least one spare mask, if not more.

Obviously, the same is true if you’re stepping into a bus or car with people from outside of your household. That’s a separate discussion, as the vehicle would then need fresh air ventilated in, as from open windows.

Whatever we wear, it should fit snugly, without gaps to let virus particles escape.

—Cloth masks should have at least two layers of cotton or linen to catch particles.

—Paper masks are fine.

—Masks with air valves fail to protect other people. Avoid them. They filter out the air you breathe in, but then they release your particles into the air through the valve, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Before the pandemic, some N95 masks were made with valves specifically to protect contractors from dust but to also let the worker discharge hot, moist air that could dampen their mask.

—Face shields don’t do anything to prevent the virus from filling the air, the CDC says. They only keep the virus from getting fired into a person’s eyes, Martinez says.

—Neck gaiters and tubes should be worn with caution. Those thin, polyester gaiters that became popular this summer aren’t effective, Martinez says, explaining that their slippery material does a poor job of catching and holding particles. The CDC has also pointed that out, but in a graphic on its website this fall, the CDC says a gaiter is OK as long as it’s double layered or it’s folded over to make two layers.

Buff, a well-known company that’s been making gaiters and tubes for several years — both the thin, cool kind for summer heat and a thicker, warm one for winters — had said early on that its lightweight gaiters weren’t designed nor tested to screen out the virus.

To meet this year’s pandemic need, Buff started making both a mask and tube with an inside mesh pocket where you can insert and replace filters. The masks and tubes cost $29-$22; a pack of 30 filters costs $22.

Buff is among other outdoor companies that are also making multi-layer face gear.

—Neck warmers and balaclavas have long been an effective way to protect the skin of winter athletes. These are made with many warm, high-tech fabrics, each with varying levels of thickness, that wick moisture from your skin and stop the wind. Many are made with fleece.

Martinez says fleece could be moderately effective because it’s a bulkier material that can hold particles. One key COVID test for any of these cold-weather masks, Martinez and health officials advise, is that you shouldn’t see pinpricks of light through the material.

I have a fleece balaclava with breathing holes at the mouth and nose, bought before the pandemic. Naturally, that will offer zero COVID protection unless I add a proper mask beneath it.

(c)2020 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

Visit the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) at www.southbendtribune.com

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