Why Most People Don't Need A Surgical Face Mask

by Kevin Gaertner May 18, 2020

Fabric Face Mask

At the grocery store or on the street, cloth face masks are becoming a familiar sight. While cloth masks don’t afford the same levels of protection as medical-grade masks or respirators, they are better than wearing nothing at all, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. For that reason, governors across the country are urging people to wear fabric face masks as a risk reduction measure.

Still, some people feel uneasy wearing reusable masks during a pandemic. Since a cloth mask isn’t 100% effective, you may be tempted to wear a surgical face mask in public instead. While it may be possible to snag a box of disposable surgical face masks for your weekly trip to the grocery store, it’s still not a great idea. Keep reading to learn about the drawbacks of surgical face masks -- and what we recommend as an alternative.

Bike Parts Face Mask

What are the limitations to surgical mask effectiveness?

Believe it or not, even surgical face masks have some downsides when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19. This infographic from the CDC compares surgical face mask effectiveness to N95 respirators, highlighting where disposable medical-grade masks fall short.

Since surgical face mask specifications require them to be breathable, they are not airtight. While they are fluid resistant and protect the wearer from large droplets and bodily fluids, they aren’t completely effective against airborne viruses like COVID-19. The sides of the mask don’t fit snugly against the face, so leakage will occur each time the wearer inhales.

In addition, surgical face masks do not filter smaller airborne particles. The CDC points out in this same resource that surgical face masks should not be considered respiratory protection. When it comes to filtering particles, N95 respirators are far superior at protecting the wearer from inhaling the COVID-19 virus. According to the CDC, N95 respirators filter at least 95% of airborne particles, large and small.

Of course, the biggest downside to surgical face masks is that they should be reserved for the medical professionals who need them the most. While surgical face masks effectiveness is less than N95 respirators, they are also significantly cheaper. In medical settings, surgical face masks play a vital role in protecting health care workers and patients alike.

Surgical Face Mask and N95 Mask

However, the New York Times reported that many medical personnel do not have adequate protection and have resorted to reusing vital equipment like face masks. Reusing a disposable face mask doesn’t only lessen its effectiveness -- it actually makes the risk of infection more likely for medical personnel and their patients.

While medical face masks are indispensable in hospitals, there’s no reason for members of the general public to wear them. The World Health Organization points out that medical face masks can even contribute to the public health crisis by giving people a false sense of security, causing them to neglect hand washing and social distancing. The WHO recommends that surgical face masks should only be worn by infected patients and medical professionals.

If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, surgical face masks can help to protect the people around you. Otherwise, save the medical-grade masks for the people who really need them.

How effective are homemade or cloth face masks compared to surgical masks?

Like surgical face masks, cloth masks don’t necessarily filter air or entirely block particulate matter. Cloth masks are made of porous fabrics to allow breathability, and they typically don’t seal to the face, although a correct and comfortable fit is very helpful to aid in wearing the mask correctly.

While breathable fabric and a loose fit may seem like oversights, cloth face masks are actually designed to vent the condensation from your breathing. Without a breathable fabric, moisture accumulates on the inside of the mask, and it can become damp quickly, requiring frequent replacement and cleaning. Keeping masks clean and dry is especially important as many of us are not experts in the functioning of and sterilization of our own masks.

Despite their limitations, cloth face masks are effective compared surgical masks in more ways since they serve other functions like limiting open coughs or sneezes into shared spaces and helping to prevent you from touching your face or mouth. When combined with frequent hand washing and social distancing, risk of infection can be reduced with a cloth mask, albeit not eliminated entirely.

Simply put, we should avoid viewing it as a surgical face mask vs. cloth face mask comparison, since they are more similar than different.

CDC Face Mask Guidance

What are alternatives to surgical masks?

Cloth masks are a great alternative to surgical masks, as long as you’re not sick or in a high risk setting. However, in an ongoing effort to improve our own cloth mask effectiveness, while also maintaining washability and reusability, we’ve added pockets for insertable filters. Just be sure to remove any filters before cleaning your face masks.

While filters can potentially improve air quality and provide a layer that acts as a superior moisture barrier, they can’t provide foolproof protection from COVID-19. Some particulate matter is smaller than the porosity of the filter, and cloth masks don’t seal perfectly to your face like a respirator would.

A filter provides more protection than a cloth mask alone, but it still must be used alongside common-sense precautions like hand washing and social distancing. When you wear a mask, you do so to protect yourself and others, and we thank you for doing your part. However, don’t let your cloth mask and filter give you a false sense of security. Even a mask with a filter will not make up for risky behavior.

What does a PM 2.5 filter mask do?

One of the most common filters utilized in a cloth mask is a PM 2.5 filter, which has several layers of activated charcoal that can capture pollutants, allergens and fine dust.

PM stands for particulate matter, fine particles or droplets in the air. The New York Department of Health explains that PM 2.5 is named for especially tiny air particles that are 2.5 microns or less in length. Like the name suggests, a PM 2.5 filter can capture these fine particles, preventing the wearer from inhaling them. While Coronavirus droplets are even smaller than the PM 2.5 particles these filters are designed to catch, the filter does provide an additional layer of protection.

In addition to helping protect against droplets, PM 2.5 filters capture other particles like allergens and dust. Even after the pandemic is over, masks with PM 2.5 filters can protect against smoke from wildfires, air pollution in large cities, or pollen in outdoor settings. A recent Harvard study linked air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates, so PM 2.5 filters may offer an extra layer of protection for those in areas with poor air quality.

PM 2.5 Filter

What does a polypropylene mask do?

Another way we’ve improved the effectiveness of our cloth mask is to create a polypropylene insert to prevent moisture from penetrating the mask, while still allowing for breathing out. Polypropylene, particularly the melt-blown type, has unique properties and is also one of several layers used in an N95 mask.

Polypropylene filters even smaller particles than PM 2.5, providing additional protection and peace of mind. Originally designed to filter sediment from water, melt-blown polypropylene’s unique properties allow for comfortable breathing, while helping block higher levels of moisture and droplets.

Because they protect against moisture, polypropylene filters may be especially useful for essential workers or others who need to wear their face mask for a long period. It may also be a viable option for high-risk individuals trying to reduce their exposure to the virus.

Moisture Barrier Insert

Should I wear surgical masks if I have them already?

Unless you are ill yourself or in particularly risky settings, the simple answer is no. Instead, why not donate your surgical masks to medical professionals who truly need them? As members of the general public, we can protect front-line workers by donating any and all disposable medical supplies to health professionals, and using cloth masks to reduce the risk of spread for ourselves and our community.

Surgical face masks vs cloth in summary.

While disposable surgical masks don’t provide the same level of protection as N95 respirators, they are also more affordable and far easier to find. This makes them vital protection -- for health care workers and patients. Unless you are infected with COVID-19 or caring for someone who is, you should reserve medical-grade face masks for the front-line workers who need them the most.

The CDC recommends that members of the public wear cloth face masks instead to help slow the spread of the disease. While cloth masks don’t work as well as surgical face masks, adding filters is a practical way to increase their level of protection.

To make our own face masks more effective, we’ve added two filter options. Our PM 2.5 filter can block fine particulate matter in the air. This is a great option if you want your mask to protect you from pollutants and allergens, even after the pandemic is over. Our polypropylene insert provides even more protection by filtering out smaller particles and protecting against moisture, making it a good option for essential workers or high-risk individuals. We offer both of these advanced Made in USA face masks in two sizes and in 50+ designs.

But remember -- even the best filter can’t compensate for risky behavior! Masks play an important role in protecting you and the people around you, but they must be used along with social distancing and frequent hand washing. Letting your face mask give you a false sense of security can lead to spreading the virus, not suppressing it. Be smart and be safe, not just for your own sake, but for everyone around you.



Still have questions?

Read The 411 on Face Masks, or contact our sales and support team to help. Contact us here

Kevin Gaertner
Kevin Gaertner


Also in News

Custom Printed Face Masks: Better Quality, Better Customization

by Kevin Gaertner August 27, 2020

A printed face mask is as customizable and practical as a t-shirt, but suitable for formal and informal occasions alike given current events. The best part - you don’t have to be an artist or designer to create a custom printed face mask personalized with your logo, artwork, or custom text. Here's how ours come to life.

Read More

What’s The Best Way To Wash Your Reusable Face Mask? Tips For COVID-19

by Kevin Gaertner August 26, 2020

How To Clean Your Face Mask

While wearing face masks plays a major role in slowing the spread of coronavirus, proper cleaning is also essential. We’ve gathered all of our research and tips so you can keep your face masks clean in the age of COVID-19.

Read More

Custom Wedding Masks: For More Than The Ceremony

by Anna Johnson July 28, 2020

Wedding Face Masks

Safety is a top consideration for couples tying the knot in the midst of a pandemic, and wedding face masks can play a key role in keeping you and your loved ones safe. If delaying isn’t an option, our advice is simple: embrace the mask. Instead of resenting them, why not let your style and personality shine?

Read More


Face Masks 

Adult Standard Adult Small
5" x 9"
Fits most male adults.
4.5" x 8"
Fits most women and young adults.


Neck Gaiters 

Regular Small
9.5” x 14”
Fits most men and those with larger heads.
8.5" x 14"
Fits most women and kids.




Skinny Knotty Classic
2.25" wide 2.75" wide 3.5" wide


Standard Long Extra-Long
58" long 62" long 66" long


Youth Self-Tied
52" long
Ages 10+


Bow Ties 

Adult Kids Pre-Tied Baby Pre-Tied
Self-tied style
Adjustable for necks 14-18"
Ages 2 and over
Adjustable velcro closure
Ages 2 and under
Adjustable velcro closure


Unisex Robes 

Comparable to 0-14 in Women's sizing
Comparable to Small or Medium in Men's sizing
31" wide at the waist
36" length
Comparable to 16-26 in Women's sizing
Comparable to Large or X-Large in Men's sizing
35" wide at the waist
39" length