What's the Purpose of a Face Mask?

Face masks have been around long before COVID-19 hit. In fact, French surgeon Paul Berger began using a cloth face covering during an 1897 operation. But in light of the recent outbreak, there’s been some confusion surrounding the face mask. 

People are asking, “Are face masks worn to protect the person wearing it or other people?” We wanted to take a moment to address this common question and uncover the real purpose of a face mask.

What materials should be used for a face mask?

three different types of protective face masks

First, you’ve probably seen a wide variety of face masks by now. Everything from repurposed old t-shirts to technical N95 masks. What goes into making an effective face mask? Does pulling the collar of your shirt over your nose work as an effective “face mask?”

Let’s look at what goes into each of the three common types of face masks and what it takes for a face mask to be effective protection.

N95 mask materials

The N95 mask is what you often see being worn by painters and other professionals who spend a lot of time around pollutants. Honeywell, the safety technology company, provides a simple explanation of the N95 mask:

N: The “N” is a Respirator Rating Letter Class and stands for “Non-Oil.” It means that if no oil-based particulates are present, then you can use the mask in the work environment. 

95: Masks ending in a 95, have a 95 percent efficiency. 

.3 microns: With N95 masks you see they mention .3 microns. It means the masks filter out contaminants like dusts, mists, and fumes. The minimum size of .3 microns of particulates and large droplets won’t pass through, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

Valve: Some disposable N95 masks come with an optional exhalation valve. “The presence of an exhalation valve reduces exhalation resistance, which makes it easier to breathe (exhale,)” according to the CDC. 

Material: The filtration material on the mask is an electrostatic non-woven polypropylene fiber.

Cloth mask materials

Three factors should be considered for a cloth mask to be effective protection: proper fit, proper materials, and multiple layers.

The Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago tested a variety of common materials to find which was the best at stopping the coronavirus. 

Their research covered common fabrics including cotton, silk, chiffon, flannel, various synthetics, and their combinations.

The researchers found that multiple layers of mixed fabric was the best way to filter the virus particles. "Overall, we find that combinations of various commonly available fabrics used in cloth masks can potentially provide significant protection against the transmission of aerosol particles."

Material: The most effective mask is one that is made of multiple layers of high-thread-count cotton fabric. It helps to have one to two layers made of a cotton/spandex mix to improve the fit of the mask.

Surgical masks

A surgical mask, also known as a face mask, is intended to be worn by health professionals during healthcare procedures. It’s designed to prevent infections in patients and treating personnel by catching bacteria from liquid and aerosols from the wearer's mouth and nose.

Material: Surgical masks are made of disposable nonwoven fabric.

Can face masks expire?

From your carton of milk to your face mask, everything has a shelf-life. 

According to 3M, their Health Care Particulate Respirator and Surgical Mask models have an established 5-year shelf life when respirators are stored in their original packaging within climatic conditions.

They recommend throwing away any masks that exceed the expiration date.

An N95 mask can be used up to 8 hours of continual use before it becomes ineffective according to the CDC. But moisture and other pollutants can impact this time. 

If your N95 mask is free of contamination (i.e. soiling) it can be reused up to 5 times with their recommended strategy:

Rotate 5 masks, one per day, and allow each one to dry up to 72 hours before using it again. Before wearing it again, make sure the seal is still intact and the mask is dry. 

Our cloth masks are effective up to 20 washes.

Three different uses for face masks

There are 3 common uses for face masks: public use, professional use, and medical use.

1. Face masks for public use

We both have a part to play in our local community, but we’re also a part of a national community. Wearing a non-medical grade face mask can help stop the spread of diseases such as the coronavirus.

2. Face masks to be used at work

Many professions require the use of a face mask to protect against harmful chemicals and other contaminants like dusts, mists, and fumes.

3. Face masks for medical use

The medical community has been using face masks, such as surgical masks, for over a century. They protect both patients and medical professionals. 

For public use, the CDC recommends you purchase a cloth mask to make sure N95 and surgical masks are saved for medical personnel battling COVID-19


Face masks serve to protect the person wearing it and those around them. To avoid contracting and spreading disease, a cloth mask is an ideal solution. If you’re in a medical setting or working around contaminants like dusts, mists, and fumes, then you should grab a few N95 masks for protection. And if you’re a doctor, hopefully, you’re aware of the need for a sterile surgical mask to protect yourself and your patients.

Order your VS Fashion reusable face masks today! Our non-medical grade reusable face masks are made with three layers of protection: 95% cotton and 5% spandex for flexibility and comfort.