- Copper face masks are selling out online due to antimicrobial claims stemming from recent research and evidence.
- These claims are unsubstantiated because it's often unclear how much copper is being used in a face mask's construction.
- Face masks made with copper may provide the same level of protection as other products available now. Good Housekeeping's textile expert explains what you need to know before you purchase a copper mask.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Americans have heard conflicting advice regarding the role that face masks play in stemming the spread of COVID-19. At first, top officials asked people to refrain from buying up any medical masks due to national shortages — then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pivoted to an official recommendation to wear face masks in public if at all possible, alongside major cities like New York and Los Angeles. But the masks themselves have also evolved, from DIY varieties made at home to those purchased online that may contain added protection with filters. Now, Americans are buying up cloth-based face masks that manufacturers are touting as being made with copper, an inexpensive malleable material that has been established as an antimicrobial material in previous research.
When it comes to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis, you may have already heard that copper could be one of the more resistant materials to this virus. According to a landmark March study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists in a laboratory setting discovered that a high, viable amount of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was neutralized within 4 hours when it was applied to a copper surface. It's the latest piece of evidence that suggests that copper may be a better material than, say, stainless steel when used in construction to promote health among the vulnerable public. Previous research has also explored the role of copper in face masks — a study published 10 years ago in the journal PLoS One suggests that using copper in manufacturing face masks may provide "potent anti-influenza biocidal properties."
Why haven't you been told to buy a copper mask, then? While the research is promising, the real issue arises when face masks containing copper are misinterpreted to be superior to other varieties on the market right now — and leading people to believe that they are somehow safer if they buy a mask that supposedly contains copper in some fashion.
Lexie Sachs, textile director within the Good Housekeeping Institute, says that any amount of copper — even if a mask was woven in solid copper — isn't an excuse to skip handling it with clean hands or washing it after you've worn it outside. After all, masks and other items can still be dirty even if they're not playing host to viable germs. Consumers may also find that it's nearly impossible to truly understand how much copper is used in the creation of face masks currently. Manufacturers are using vague language and aren't listing the amounts of copper used, Sachs says, which is important to know beforehand. A single strand of woven copper material may enable a retailer to promote masks as "copper" varieties. And since the role of copper-enhanced fabric in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be studied, consumers should search for varieties that are made from tightly-woven textiles, as they should for any mask they buy.
Are copper masks effective at killing coronavirus?
Because consumers are unclear on how much copper is actually used in most commercial varieties, it is impossible to know if these masks can protect against SARS-CoV-2 "better" or "faster" than other kinds of face masks currently available. Sachs says you should be wary of any retailer claiming their product has elevated antiviral abilities due to using copper in its construction; most have not conducted the necessary research to prove it.
That being said, you should feel comfortable wearing face masks or coverings containing any amount of copper material as long as it covers your nose and mouth and you secure it tightly to your face. Leading healthcare experts have previously established that any tightly woven material can be harnessed to create a reusable face mask that you can wear while in public; these masks won't stop you from breathing in all airborne particles around you, but if you're infected it may prevent you from exhaling infectious droplets into your vicinity.
Regardless of what kind of mask you end up purchasing or making, it is crucial that you wash it after each use, per current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your mask can accumulate germs on its exterior and interior after you've worn it while running errands in public spaces, and you may also contaminate it if you handle it with unwashed hands. There are many different ways for you to clean your mask; you can machine-wash it, or handwash it with a DIY bleach solution .
Should I buy a copper face mask?
Many of the copper masks available on the market have sold out due to high demand, including on platforms like Amazon and Etsy. You may find a copper-based face mask in the weeks to come that could be more reputable and reliable than models currently available now. Phyllis Kuhn, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is working on rolling out a mask made with 99% pure copper mesh, per a UMass press release. Your employer or municipality may also make copper-enhanced masks available to you in the future, as a company called Cupron (the subject of the 2010 flu study mentioned above) has already made copper face masks available to nurses and doctors currently working on the frontlines. Their masks are unavailable to consumer retailers just yet, but more companies may follow suit.
If you're considering buying a face mask that is marketed as containing copper online, Sachs says you should look for the following information:
- Does the retailer list how much copper is being used in construction? While copper is antimicrobial, it doesn't automatically mean a face mask made with an unknown amount of it will be. Since there isn't definitive evidence to suggest how effective copper alongside textiles (as opposed to pure copper) is at neutralizing SARS-CoV-2, there isn't a way to determine which copper masks might provide you better protection; theoretically, the higher the amount of copper used, the better.
- What other materials are being used in this mask? If the mask uses materials like uses tightly woven cotton or polyester fabrics— anything that is tightly woven and won't stretch or rip with use — then you shouldn't be afraid of buying the mask in any case. It may not provide much of an antiviral boost, but if covers your nose and mouth and can be secured to your face easily, it will work just as well as any other face mask you have been using in protecting others, in case you're exhaling infectious droplets.
The bottom line: Remember, the physical barrier keeping germs from escaping your mouth or nose may help us stem the spread of COVID-19 in crowded places — not the material of a mask alone. You'll need to wash your mask regardless of which material it contains, and that includes copper in any amount. Try not to stress over procuring a "copper" mask, but keep on prioritizing wearing a mask properly while in public.
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