Effects of distancing and pattern of breathing on the filtering capability of commercial and custom-made facial masks: An in-vitro study

PLoS One. 2021 Apr 22;16(4):e0250432. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0250432. eCollection 2021.


Background: Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemics, masking policies have been advocated. While masks are known to prevent transmission towards other individuals, it is unclear if different types of facial masks can protect the user from inhalation. The present study compares in-vitro different commercial and custom-made facial masks at different distances and breathing patterns.

Methods: Masks were placed on a head mannequin connected to a lung simulator, using a collecting filter placed after the mannequin airway. Certified, commercial and custom-made masks were tested at three different distances between the emitter and the mannequin: 40 cm, 80 cm and 120 cm. Two patterns of breathing were used, simulating normal and polypneic respiration. A solution of methylene blue was nebulized with a jet nebulizer and different mask-distance-breathing pattern combinations were tested. The primary endpoint was the inhaled fraction, defined as the amount of methylene blue detected with spectrophotometry expressed as percent of the amount detected in a reference condition of zero distance and no mask.

Findings: We observed a significant effect of distance (p < 0.001), pattern of breathing (p = 0.040) and type of mask (p < 0.001) on inhaled fraction. All masks resulted in lower inhaled fraction compared to breathing without mask (p < 0.001 in all comparisons), ranging from 41.1% ± 0.3% obtained with a cotton mask at 40 cm distance with polypneic pattern to <1% for certified FFP3 and the combination of FFP2 + surgical mask at all distances and both breathing pattern conditions.

Discussion: Distance, type of device and breathing pattern resulted in highly variable inhaled fraction. While the use of all types of masks resulted relevantly less inhalation compared to distancing alone, only high-grade certified devices (FFP3 and the combination of FFP2 + surgical mask) ensured negligible inhaled fraction in all conditions.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • Equipment Design
  • Humans
  • Manikins
  • Masks*
  • Physical Distancing*
  • Respiration
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification

Grant support

The authors received no specific funding for this work.