The latest product flying off the virtual shelves? Face masks made with copper-infused fabrics. Here, experts weigh in on whether these increasing popular masks really offer better protection than the coronavirus.
When public health officials first recommended that the general public wear cloth face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, most people scrambled to grab whatever they could get their hands on. But now that a few weeks have passed, there’s a wider range of options available: pleats or more of a cone-style mask? Patterns or solid colors? Neck gaiter or bandana? And most recently: cotton or copper?
Yes, you read that right: copper as in the metal. But get any images of Medieval-esque metal face coverings out of your head—these modern face masks are made with copper-infused fabric, which means the malleable metal is woven into, say, cotton or nylon fibers.
This raises some major questions: Is this added protection from copper fabric face masks legit? Should you get one? Here’s what you need to know about the latest coronavirus craze, according to experts.
First thing’s first: why copper?
While it’s unclear where exactly the idea for copper-infused face masks originated, the concept behind it is simple and rooted in science: “Copper has known antimicrobial properties,” says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Since 2008, copper has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “metallic antimicrobial agent,” as it has a potent ability to kill pathogens. (FYI: Silver also has antimicrobial properties.) And while scientists have known for years that copper can help take out germs—including E.coli, MRSA, staphylococcus—simply on contact, a March 2020 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that it can also destroy SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. More specifically, this study discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can only survive on copper in a lab setting for up to four hours. By comparison, the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel for two to three days, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
“The theory behind copper face masks is that, in various concentrations, it can actually inhibit some bacteria and viruses,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “But I have no idea whether a copper-infused face mask performs better than a regular cloth face mask at preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
And Dr. Schaffner’s not the only one who’s still TBD on copper masks’ effectiveness. Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees: “Copper has antiviral properties in the lab. [But] it is unclear if they will work as well in masks.”
As of now, there is no publicly available scientific data to suggest that copper face masks are more effective, or even as effective, as cloth face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. There also is no data to suggest they may be able to perform on the level of an N-95 respirator mask, aka the gold standard of face masks when it comes to protecting against the coronavirus. There is one study from 2010 published in PLoS One that found copper-infused masks helped filter out some aerosolized particles that contained influenza A and avian flu, but that’s the flu—not COVID-19.
In fact, it’s “a bit of a leap” to say that face masks made with copper-infused fabric will be beneficial, says Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment and cross-contamination. He says other factors, such as the size of the mesh, the probability of a virus particle actually landing on the copper, and how well the mask fits are also important to consider. “The hard science behind [copper masks] is minimal at best,” he adds.
What’s more, the research on copper and SARS-CoV-2 has focused on how long the virus actually lives on the surface of copper, but not about whether the metal can stop particular from getting through something like the mask, says Dr. Adalja. “If you put coronavirus on a copper face masks, and you put coronavirus on another mask that didn’t have copper in it, the virus would probably survive longer on the mask that doesn’t have copper in it.” But, the bigger concern with COVID-19 is breathing in viral particles—and there’s no indication that a copper-infused face mask can protect you against that, he adds.
Is it even safe to use a copper face mask?
Also unclear. If you inhale enough copper fumes, you could face side effects like respiratory irritation, nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and a metallic taste in your mouth, according to Jamie Alan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University.
It’s also possible that the copper-infused fabric can lead to an allergic reaction, causing skin redness, irritation, and even blisters to develop on your face, says Gary Goldenberg, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “There is no way to know that you are allergic unless you used copper products in the past and had an allergy already,” he says. That said, if you decide to try a copper mask, he recommends you start by wearing it only for a short period of time to make sure you don’t have a reaction.
What is maintenance like for these masks?
Every brand is a little different but, in general, these masks should be handled a bit more carefully than your average cloth face mask. For example, Copper Compression’s masks should be soaked in hot water for five minutes and squeezed while they soak to help get the water through the mask’s four layers (copper, filter, filter lining, cotton) before wearing. Copper Mask also recommends you hand wash its products in warm water with a “neutral” (i.e. unscented) detergent and let them air-dry afterward. However, The Futon Shop recommends washing its copper-infused masks in your washing machine with hot water and doing a tumble dry with low-to-no heat in the dryer. All of these companies recommend washing your mask after every wear. (Which is something you should always do, whether it’s copper, sweat-wicking, or even a DIY face mask.)
What should you look for in a copper face mask?
Because so much is still TBD as to copper masks and their effectiveness against COVID-19, it really comes down to the importance of basic details, such as the mask’s fit. “My advice is to find a cloth one that is comfortable, that is well-fitting—minimal gaps around the nose, the chin, and the sides—and then wash it on a regular basis, ideally daily,” says Donald Schaffner. “It’s a good idea to have several so that you can rotate them.” And these key features are just as important if you’re interested in trying mask insert face masks such as this MIMI (Multi ion mask insert) .
Ultimately, experts just want you to wear a mask and practice other methods to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Wearing any mask is better than none,” says Dr. Watkins. “It is important to remember social distancing, even when wearing a mask, to most reduce the risk of transmission.”