Are Copper Face Masks Actually More Effective? What to Know Before You Buy One

While copper has natural anti-microbial properties, it's still unclear whether it boosts the safety of face masks.

Between ensuring the proper fit, adding a filter, and washing it regularly, there are a number of things you can do to make your face mask more effective. The material it's made of also plays a role, and lately, fabric masks containing copper have gained attention as an alternative to other cloth face coverings that could be potentially more hygienic.

woman riding in car with face mask
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Copper is known to have natural anti-microbial properties, which help destroy viruses and bacteria upon contact. In a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the metal demonstrated the ability to kill the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 within four hours. Known as contact killing, this occurs when the metal's molecules interact with and damage a virus's cells, effectively destroying them. Compared to other materials, such as plastic and fabric, which can harbor viruses for multiple days, copper surfaces appear to provide an added defense against the virus. But does that translate to a more effective face mask?

The evidence is still unclear. Copper face masks, which you can now buy from sellers on Etsy and Amazon as well as some independent companies, typically contain a thin mesh layer of the malleable metal on the outside or include copper threads woven into the fabric, neither of which should affect the mask's breathability. Because the copper would ideally kill any lingering traces of the virus within a few hours, these masks are intended to reduce virus-containing particles coming in or out of the mask as the wearer breathes.

However, while copper has demonstrated its antiviral abilities as a surface, more research is needed to determine whether it works against coronavirus when incorporated into a mask. "I have great hopes for copper masks," Michael Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, told Fast Company. "But there is a lot of research that still needs to be done about [their] effectiveness. If you're just throwing copper layers onto a mask, we don't [know] if they work.

Retailers selling commercial copper face masks often make antiviral claims that might not be backed by specific research, and since it's sometimes unclear how exactly how much copper is used within the mask, verifying the material's effectiveness is nearly impossible. Virus particles need to come in contact with the copper to be deactivated, which means that unless the metal is incorporated into every fiber, the mask won't be completely effective at killing the virus.

Overall, copper face masks function similarly to other fabric face coverings, serving mostly as a physical barrier to block airborne droplets that are released when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks. So while purchasing a face mask containing copper likely won't do you any harm, it might not be as effective at killing coronavirus as advertised.

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