What are the best protective face mask materials?
Fashion Industry Questions  PPE Clothing  Difference Between Surgical Mask & N95 Respirator

Are you looking for the best fabrics to use for protective face masks?

"Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance." This quote retrieved from the CDC website 4/18/20. Consult with them for any changes.

Determining the best protective face mask material obviously depends on the type of protection you are seeking.  Certainly, not all face masks are created equal.  Some are designed to protect from viruses, some from the cold weather, & others from flying hockey pucks.

This page has been inspired by the Covid-19 virus epidemic (year 2020).  Therefore, let's review PPE masks with the goal of protecting against a virus.  The abbreviation "PPE" refers to Personal Protective Equipment.

What is a virus?  A virus is an infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy (submicroscopic), and is able to multiply within the living cells of a host.  Viruses can infect all types of life forms.  In summary, they are "bad" news.

The study of viruses is known as virology, a sub-specialty of microbiology.  Virology focuses on the following aspects of viruses: their structure, classification and evolution, their ways to infect and exploit host cells for reproduction, their interaction with host organism physiology and immunity, the diseases they cause, the techniques to isolate and culture them, and their use in research and therapy.

Before we go any further, let me be very clear in stating that the author of this page nor anyone else working at ApparelSearch.com has studied virology, microbiology, or have received medical training at any level.  Do NOT relay on our comments alone.  We will be writing about what we find online and personal observations only.  Again, we are NOT scientists or doctors.  In fact, we are not even clever in the slightest.  With that said, hopefully you will find something on this page to be of help with your research.

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

What are the best PPE mask materials?

In regard to the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020, the concern has been the aerosol-sized particles.  It has been reported that the goal is to keep the particles from spreading from one host to another.  The world has been told to keep our hands clean, avoid touching our face, and wear face masks.  The PPE masks are meant to protect others as well as ourselves.

Melt-blown non-woven fabric is a common material for making quality face masks. The non-woven fabric means it is produced directly from fiber stage (in case of natural fibers) or from polymers (in granular stage) to fabric without the needing of an intermediate process like spinning or yarn formation. The melt-blown nonwovens are made of thermoplastic synthetic polymer, directly from the polymer stage to randomly-laid nonwoven mat or fabrics by using the melt-blown spinning process.

Spunbond fabrics are produced by depositing extruded, spun filaments onto a collecting belt in a uniform random manner by bonding the fibers. The fibers are separated during the web laying process by air jets or electrostatic charges.

A difference between melt blown nonwoven and spunbond nonwoven:

In general, meltblown system produces fibers with a diameter of ranging from 1μm to 10 μm. The melt-blown web is softer, bulkier, and a bit weaker. It has a smaller pore size with greater filtration efficiency in comparison with spun-bonded fibrous webs. Because of its lesser strength, in most filter applications, this melt-blown fibrous media is used with the support from another web or used as part of a composite structure. The most widely used polymer for this web formation is polypropylene (PP).  Spunbond polypropylene has many excellent properties, strength and durability being just two of those. On the other hand, meltblown has relatively weak tensile properties but due to the smaller fibres and larger surface area taken up by the fibers, it has excellent wicking and barrier properties.

Can Melt blown and Spunbond be combined? 

The combination of spunbond and meltblown materials means that the features of each can make up for the weaknesses of the other. For example, meltblowns have limited strength so can be combined with a spunbond to become a strong material, and likewise spunbonds can be elevated with the addition of meltblowns.

Spunbond Meltblown Spunbond, commonly known as SMS is a tri laminate non woven fabric (3 layers). It is made up of a top layer of spunbond polypropylene, a middle layer of meltblown polypropylene and a bottom layer of spunbond polypropylene. How is SMS manufactured? This fabric involves two components, spunbond polypropylene and melt blown polypropylene.   Again, Spunbond polypropylene has many excellent properties, strength and durability being just two of those. On the other hand, meltblown has relatively weak tensile properties but due to the smaller fibres and larger surface area taken up by the fibers, it has excellent wicking and barrier properties. So together, they can create a strong product which can also offer a barrier to fluids and particles.

What about the fiber?  Time to learn about polypropylene.

Polypropylene is a commonly used material for N95 masks.  Polypropylene fabric is a nonwoven textile, which means that it is made directly from a material without any need for spinning of weaving. Most types of polypropylene fabrics are copolymer.

Polypropylene was originally marketed under the name "Moplen," and this name is still a registered trademark of the LyondellBasell corporation. However, it is much more common to find this substance referred to as polypropylene or "polypro" for short.

Caution: Polypropylene melts at relatively low temperatures.  Molten polypro fabric can cause serious burns, and this issue also makes it impossible to wash this fabric at high temperature.

Like every other synthetic textile, polypropylene fabric also has a significantly negative impact on the environment. Like most types of plastics, polypro is made from substances that are derived from hydrocarbon fuels like petroleum oil.  Every piece of polypropylene fabric that is produced will remain in the ecosystem for hundreds of years before it is broken down.

Two large producers of Polypropylene include Sinopec Group and PetroChina Group both based in Beijing, China.

N95 means that the mask can filter out at least 95% of particles of all sizes from the air.

Polypropylene is a commonly used material for N95 masks. To get through a filter made out of interlaced layers of polypropylene fibers, small particles have to wind through a rather tortuous path and as a result tend to get stuck, as described by a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report that Jayaraman helped author.

Medical face masks typically use nonwoven fabrics.  They will often use multiple layers.  Many masks are made with 3 layers.  However, more layers are possible as well.

One example seen in the market of 3 layers as follows:

One example seen in the market has 5 layers as follows.

  1. 1st & 5th ply (layer) is spun-bond PP.
  2. 2nd & 3rd ply (layer) is melt-blown PP (filter)
  3. 4th ply (layer) is ES material.

The main material of "ES" non-woven fabric is PP+PE and PET+PE.

The ES non-woven material used for surgical face masks needs to be non-shedding, lint-free, and non-toxic so PP+PE materials are mostly used for medical face masks.

Nonwoven Research

Jersey material does not have the characteristics necessary to filter out very small virus particles in the same way as PP material. Note: jersey material is commonly used for t-shirts, etc.

Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19 (CDC website)

Copper in fabric.  Does it have benefit?  Copper is said to have anti-microbial properties.  You will have to do your own research for further evaluation.

Silver in Fabric.  Similar to copper, their are claims that silver has antimicrobial properties.

Activated Charcoal Fabric (activated carbon filter) - activated carbon technology can help absorb macro particles to help eliminate odors from smoke, cooking, pets, etc.  Charcoal helps filter.

Here is a video how to make your own cloth face mask?

Should we add filters to our face masks?  We have read that adding filters is more protective.  Again, we are not scientists & have not personally conducted studies.  However, it does make sense to us that an additional filter could add additional protection.  Don't believe us, but here is a quote we found online.

Research from Missouri S&T, headed up by Yang Wang, Ph.D, assistant professor of environmental engineering, has found that "more open" fabrics block only 10-20% of particles, Burken said. But add several layers of a HEPA filter, and it will block 80-90%, "approaching (the rates) of N95 masks."

If your mask is made of thin fabric or has a looser weave, it might not catch that many "aerosol-sized particles that we're concerned about with the COVID virus," Joel Burken, Ph.D, chair of the department of civil, architectural and environment engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology

What materials can be used as filters?

Note: the materials discussed here do NOT turn the mask into a N95 mask.  These are only examples of ways to improve a DIY face mask if you don't have an official N95 mask.

According to an article from TODAY by Maura Hohman April 17, 2020, "Both Burken and Segal spoke highly of HEPA filters used in common household appliances, like furnaces and air conditioners. Burken also advised checking the MPR (microparticle performance rating) and MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) on these products". 

What is HEPA mean?  High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA), also known as high-efficiency particulate absorbing and high-efficiency particulate arrestance, is an efficiency standard of air filter. Filters meeting the HEPA standard must satisfy certain levels of efficiency. Common standards require that a HEPA air filter must remove—from the air that passes through—at least 99.95% (European Standard) or 99.97% (ASME, U.S. DOE) of particles whose diameter is equal to 0.3 μm; with the filtration efficiency increasing for particle diameters both less than and greater than 0.3 μm.

Learn more about HEPA at https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-hepa-filter-1

Be cautious of air flow. Yes, you need to be able to breath easily while wearing a mask or mask with filter.

See a video on how to make a mask with filter.

You can check our DIY fashion to see illustrations for the following:

Sewing Cloth Face Masks

Non-sewing Cloth Face Masks

Making Bandana Face Masks

You may want to read the following blog posts on the Fashion Blog.

N95 Masks & Surgical Masks

Protective Masks for Covid-19 Pandemic

What is a N95 Respirator Mask?

You should also visit the CDC website (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Here are a few questions that we have that Apparel Search does not yet know the answer?

Are breathable fabrics good or bad for PPE masks?  Not sure.

Are natural fibers better or worse for PPE masks?  Not sure.

Are synthetic fibers best for PPE masks?  Not sure.

Note: a DIY face mask typically does NOT have the same benefits as a N95 respirator mask.

Apparel Search Fashion Industry b2b Directory for the clothing industryTypes of protective face masks:

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