Masks Under the Microscope | EE Times

Donning a face mask before going outside has practically become second nature to us this past year. In fact, according to a report by Market Security Report LLC, in 2020 alone, “the face mask industry size was recorded at USD $4581 million-a 24.2% increase from the entirety of last decade”. A little over a year ago, the government had issued a country lockdown and the first thing many people did was purchase sky blue face masks to shield themselves from the pandemic. While many people are now being vaccinated, face masks are still making themselves more than prevalent as a extra layer of protection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 “spreads through close contact via exposure to the respitory droplets of an infected person. Cloth masks block these droplets and smaller particles of aerosols that the person exhales. They also offer some protection to the wearer by blocking incoming air”. While face masks have been proven to end the spread of COVID-19 in this way, seeing the mask under a microscope may prove otherwise. Scientists at the National Institute Standards and Technology placed these masks under an electron scanning microscope.

At first glance, the results look like strands of pasta over a face mask. Some materials, like polyester, look like braids or dried grass haphazardly spread. It’s quite mind boggling that we wear this on our face. These “spaghetti strands”, however, are vital to the mask as they block the fibers and droplets that can spread the virus. Even the humidity in our breath was shown under the microscope through small specs that would not be seen on macroscopic levels.

Edward Vicenzi, who created the photomicrographs, provides his opinion: “I was instantly drawn into the beautiful interlocking patterns made by woven materials. Despite the simplicity of the patterns, each thread, which is made up of a bundle of fibers, has its complex shape. On the other hand, the non woven materials like N95 and surgical masks, were like viewing a wildly chaotic scene filled with fibers of all sizes going in every direction. The contrast between the two types of textures hit me right in the face and it was stunning.”

Regardless of the quantity of fibers shown on the microscope, face masks are proven effective at providing an extra layer of protection towards spreading the virus. So please continue to wear masks, use your head, and don’t wind up dead! Stay safe!

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