Choosing the right mask for physical activity

Alex Garibashvily and Molly Parker

While diving for a play, varsity volleyball player Abhi Lakkamsani saw his disposable mask peel off his face. The straps had broken when he landed on his side. He then started wearing a triple-layer reusable mask, made mostly of nylon.

Lakkamsani said in a video conference that he tried a single-layer cloth mask, but it got damp with sweat, which made it difficult to breathe.

Dr. Daniel Durand, chief innovation officer for LifeBridge Health, said in a phone interview that masks made with non-wicking material work well because they are less likely to get saturated with respiratory droplets, saliva or sweat. 

A mask that gets soaked with moisture, some argue, is more dangerous than not wearing a mask because a pathway is created for bacteria and viruses to get into the mask and from there to get into your mouth, Durand said. 

Durand does not have a strong opinion on either cotton or synthetic masks as there is not much evidence in favor of either, he said. 

Cloth masks can protect others, but they lack the filter capacity to protect the individual wearing the cloth mask. Health care provider masks, such as an N95 or N100 mask, have the filter capacity needed for those working in hospitals to protect themselves, Durand said. 

“When you’re breathing through an N95, you don’t want to run a marathon,” Durand said.

A medical grade mask offers greater protection from exposure to the virus, but allows for less air flow during exercise, Durand said.

Dr. Eric Westman, associate professor of medicine at Duke University, said in a phone interview that in order to test the effectiveness of a mask, “You can hold a candle in front of the mask and if you can blow it out easily, or even if the candle moves a lot from the air going through, that’s not going to be very protective.” 

In terms of protection, the more layers the better, but more research needs to be done for what masks are most effective for sports, Westman said. 

Lakkamsani said wearing a mask is not the most comfortable, but “it’s better to play with them now and deal with this minor discomfort, as opposed to having a breakout and then having to have a potential shutdown of our season.”