Cloth Masks vs Surgical Masks

Did you ever imagine that face masks would become lifesaving tools? Here, we discuss the different types of masks and their effectiveness against COVID-19.

COVID-19 cases continue to crop up across the country. As it becomes clear that Americans will be wearing face masks into the foreseeable future, questions have arisen about which type of masks should be worn by who.

The big question still remains: Who should wear which kind of mask, when and where? That is the elephant in the room. Between single-use medical masks and reusable fabric masks, which is more effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus?

Read on to learn more about the differences between cloth masks and surgical masks.

Who Should Wear? 

  • Cloth Masks –  The FDA guidelines on the use of cloth masks state that cloth masks should be worn by people who show no COVID-19 symptoms. The World Health Organization also urges everyone in a public setting to wear a cloth mask so as to help slow down the spread of coronavirus.
Cloth masks

You are also advised to wear a cloth mask when in places where the one-meter distance apart rule can’t be applied. Also, if your work involves close contact with many people like in the public transport sector, the WHO and health departments across the US advise that you put on a fabric face mask.

  • Surgical Masks – They are classified by the US Food and Drug Administration as examples of personal protective equipment used to protect the wearer against contaminated airborne droplets and liquids. Surgical masks are designed to cover the mouth, nose and chin.The design of surgical masks ensures that they prevent the transmission of contaminated respiratory secretions from the wearer to those close to him or her. Simply put, if you are the one wearing a surgical mask, then it is protecting others from you.It is because of their effectiveness that surgical masks are recommended for health care workers, people who show COVID-19 symptoms and those taking care of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.

Regulation and Certification

  • Cloth MasksAs things stand, there are no clear guidelines on the making and certification for use of cloth masks. They are neither tested nor approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration. All the information that there is at the moment about cloth masks has been through independent studies such as this.It is based on data gathered from these studies that cloth masks are being recommended as alternatives to surgical masks and N95 respirators. Because they are no regulations on the making and design for cloth masks, most cloth masks are home-made. This is why they are easily and readily available.
  • Surgical MasksRegulation and certification of surgical masks are intended to ensure they are safe for use and they pose no danger to the environment. Here in the US, testing, approval, and regulation of cloth masks is done by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Surgical Masks

Regulation of surgical masks is necessary because they are used by health care workers and other frontline workers.

Purpose and Use

  • Cloth Masks – Cloth masks are commonly used by the general public as perceived protection against contaminated airborne droplets. In epidemic and pandemic situations, cloth masks are used for disease “source control.’ They lower the risk of you infecting others when you sneeze or cough. In cases where an acute shortage of N95 respirators and surgical masks is being witnessed, cloth masks serve as the last resort.

Cloth masks

  • Surgical Masks – Surgical masks serve the primary purpose of preventing the transmission of contaminated respiratory secretions and saliva from the wearer to those in their close distance. When you infected people wear a surgical mask their contaminated respiratory secretions cannot pass to other people. In short, if you are the wearer, surgical masks protect others from you. Surgical masks can be used during operations and surgery.


  • Cloth Masks – CDC guidelines indicate that cloth masks can be washed and reused. The washing can be by machine or by hand. When using a washing machine, the cloth mask can be included with regular laundry. Regular detergent is also used. If you happen to wash your cloth mask by hand, be sure to use a bleach that is meant for infection. The water to be used should be at room temperature. Not all bleaches are used for disinfection. The mask should be rinsed properly and left to dry.
  • Surgical Masks – The WHO guidelines on the use of surgical masks state that surgical masks are single-use masks. Surgical masks have to be replaced as soon as they become damp. The surgical mask is removed from behind and immediately wrapped in a tissue paper or polythene bag before being discarded in a closed bin. You are not supposed to touch the front portion of the mask when removing it. After handling the mask, wash your hands thoroughly with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds. If you can, you can also wash your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer.


  • Cloth Masks- The limiting factor about cloth masks is that their design, making, and use is not regulated and standardized. It is for this reason that their use is not recommended in high-risk areas. They only serve as an alternative to surgical and N95 respirators in pandemic and epidemic situations.
  • Surgical Masks- The main limitation of surgical masks is their single-use nature. Unlike cloth masks, they can’t be washed and reused. This limited use has led to an acute shortage of these masks as the global demand continues to rise. If not properly handled, surgical masks can become a source of infection.

Surgical Masks

The bottom line is: Surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The COVID-19 disease has caused an acute shortage of surgical masks making cloth masks the best available option. Although studies suggest that cloth masks are not effective against COVID-19, wearing a cloth mask is better than wearing no mask at all.

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