Are Silk Face Masks the New N95?

Why silk masks are the second-most protective face mask against COVID-19

Silk face masksSilk outperformed other fabrics in a recent study about the most effective materials for face masks.

With Waqas Ahmad MD

We all know that any mask is better than no mask, that it must cover your nose and mouth, and that wearing them protects everyone around you. But we're starting to learn that some masks may be more effective than others.

Laboratory-based research out of the University of Cincinnati recently published in PLOS One has found a fabric most capable of protecting us from COVID-19: Silk. But how could something that usually inspires images of runway fashion be effective in a global pandemic? Let’s investigate.

The N95 shortage is leading to new research around personal protective equipment

Alternative fabrics are being discussed because the entirety of the United States is seeing an N95 mask shortage due to this pandemic.

The N95 mask is considered the most reliable defense against the COVID-19 virus. When worn appropriately, less than 5 percent of the tiniest particles will pass through. But many frontline workers have been having to re-wear the same N95 mask for months, even though they’re supposed to be single-wear. 

Why? Manufacturers of N95 masks make them when they see fit for business reasons and not necessarily due to demand. President Trump has some authority over this, yet he hasn’t used it, leaving hospitals and medical professionals begging for government intervention. 

This is why people have been making face masks out of just about everything, and why we’re talking about a fabric like silk that you usually see in neckties and blouses. 

Between silk, polyester, and cotton, silk masks were found most effective at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus

The authors of the PLOS One report explained that their goal was two-fold. They wanted to determine the best fabric for everyday people to use, as well as for essential workers to wear on top of their already over-used N95 masks for an extra layer of protection.

Cotton, polyester, and silk fabrics were evaluated as both facial coverings and covers for other masks. The researchers measured the fabrics’ hydrophobicity (which determines how tiny, aerosolized water droplets get in and out) as well as the breathability of each mask (since we all know it can be challenging to take a full breath while masked). They also tested how the fabrics performed after multiple cleanings.

Silk was able to best repel and withstand penetration of aerolized droplets, meaning it had the most hydrophobicity compared to cotton and polyester. As a facial covering and a covering for a mask, including after several re-washes, silk remained remarkable.

“Although respiratory masks are still the most appropriate form of protection, silk face coverings possess properties that make them capable of repelling droplets,” according to the study authors.

This isn’t the first time silk has been used in a medical capacity. Sutures are made from silk, and current research is examining other new applications for silk in health care. 

What makes silk masks better?

Silk is created by none other than the caterpillar, the insects that turn into butterflies and moths. In the case of silk, the silk moth caterpillar (Bombyx mori) has been widely bred for silk production. In fact, it’s believed that the silkworm was even being bred before the Neolithic Age (yep, that’s over 12,000 years ago).

These little insects spin semi-impermeable cocoons (sometimes spinning for days straight) out of silk in order to stay safe and protected from the outside world.

Interestingly, the caterpillar’s gift of silk isn’t just beautiful and hydrophobic, it’s also naturally antiviral, antimicrobial, and antibacterial. What gives silk its many health-promoting qualities may come down to the presence of copper (which comes from silk moths eating copper-rich mulberry leaves). In fact, some research has found that copper in food and supplement form may even offer protection against oxidative damage.

Can't we just combine fabrics with copper? The PLOS One report states, “Other fabrics and non-specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) require copper particles to be infused during manufacturing, an expensive process that can be circumvented by using natural silk fibers.”

Does this mean that we need some special type of silk for our face masks? Nope. The report also states that the silk they tested was 100% silk, the kind that’s commercially available everywhere.

How do you wear a silk face mask?

According to Dr. Waqas Ahmad, a Family Medicine Physician and head of the Medical Advisory Board of Insurecast, you’ve got to layer up. “The silk mask is the next best thing after the N95 and surgical masks. To increase protection, masks with multiple layers improve efficacy.”

Dr. Ahmad goes on to explain, “The spread of COVID-19 is mainly through respiratory droplets. A three-layer silk mask can be very efficient in stopping the spread of infection by forming a barrier against these droplets.”

There are already plenty of silk masks on the market to choose from. We like these silk masks by KES. Other perks? “Silk is very smooth, breathable, and soft, so the chances of irritation and overheating are reduced. It's also moisture repellent. This last quality is the property that makes it a more comforable choice as a face mask instead of cotton, which traps moisture inside,” says Dr. Ahmad.

Are there any downsides to silk masks?

According to Terry Au Yeung PhD, chief technology officer of AM99 and creator of the reusable lab-certified protective AM99 mask, there are a few things to consider. Some silk masks cost about $8 to $15 for a single mask, whereas other masks are sold for as low as $4.

"Because of the lightweight nature of the fabric, it can also be sucked toward your mouth when taking a breath," he says. The other issue? "You’re going to want to be sure the silk mask you buy comes with more than one layer."

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