Scientific research has proven that masks are one of the most effective tools in stopping the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. The highly contagious virus can easily infect other people through respiratory droplets from coughs, sneezes or even just talking, if people are standing close together — and especially if they’re indoors.
While a tightly fitted respirator mask is best for protecting a person and anyone around them from spreading COVID-19, a nationwide shortage of those masks means they should be reserved for frontline workers. That leaves the average person with a few options for non-medical face masks. Which ones are most effective?
A group of researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science set out to answer that question, and found that sewn, multi-layered masks — like the ones readily available on Etsy and from many clothing brands — were most effective, followed by cone-style non-sterile masks available at pharmacies. Folded homemade masks and bandanas were less effective, but still did their job in reducing the spread.
RELATED: Can’t Find a Cloth Face Mask? These 39 Retailers Have Them in Stock
To test the masks, researchers set up a mannequin in a lab, under laser lights, and created a synthetic fog that would emulate coughing and sneezing. They then observed how the respiratory droplets would spray out from the mannequin without any mask, and then with those four mask types — a bandana, a folded homemade mask, a sewn multi-layered mask and a cone-style non-sterile mask.
Florida Atlantic University A cough without a face mask of any kind
All of the masks are “readily available to the general public, which do not draw away from the supply of medical-grade masks and respirators for healthcare workers,” FAU said in a press release.
RELATED: Department of Justice Warns Against ‘Fraudulent’ Face Mask Exemption Cards
Without any mask, the droplets from a cough traveled more than 8 feet — past even the recommended 6 feet for social distancing. A bandana was the least effective mask of the four, but still was far more protective, reducing the distance to just 3 feet. And the quickly folded mask reduced the distance to 1 foot, 3 inches.
Florida Atlantic University A cough with a bandana face mask
Florida Atlantic University A cough with a folded homemade face mask
The best mask turned out to be a sewn, multi-layered mask — the kind now readily available on Etsy and from many clothing stores. Those reduced respiratory droplets to just 2.5 inches, beating out the cone-style non-sterile masks, which led to 8 inches of spread.
Florida Atlantic University A cough with a cone-style non-sterile face mask
Florida Atlantic University A cough with a sewn, multi-layered mask
“These masks were able to curtail the speed and range of the respiratory jets significantly, albeit with some leakage through the mask material and from small gaps along the edges,” FAU said.
The study, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, shows that masks can significantly reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.
“In addition to providing an initial indication of the effectiveness of protective equipment, the visuals used in our study can help convey to the general public the rationale behind social-distancing guidelines and recommendations for using face masks,” said Dr. Siddhartha Verma, lead author and an assistant professor at FAU. “Promoting widespread awareness of effective preventive measures is crucial at this time as we are observing significant spikes in cases of COVID-19 infections in many states, especially Florida.”
Teen Donates 11K Masks to Tx. Hospital, Hopes to Dispel Bias Against Asian Americans amid Pandemic
“I’m just really happy that I’m able to make a difference and want to show that Asian Americans are with health workers and we want to unite,” Valerie Xu says
RELATED: Jennifer Aniston Says Wearing a Face Mask ‘Shouldn’t Be a Debate’ amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Though the Centers for Disease Control said on April 3 that they recommend Americans wear a face mask whenever they are unable to distance from other people, the Trump administration has refrained from a nationwide mask mandate, leaving the decision up to individual states. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia require them, and cities and counties in other states have mandated masks. On Tuesday, economists at Goldman Sachs released new estimates that a nationwide mask mandate could help the U.S. avoid further, economically harmful lockdowns, and save the country 5 percent GDP.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.