The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said Americans should wear the “most protective mask they can,” but stopped short of recommending an N95 or similar face covering. This has created some confusion surrounding what type of mask is best for COVID-19 and has led many on the hunt for a new mask. Below we’ll take a look at the new CDC guidance, as well as what type of mask is best for COVID-19. Here’s everything you need to know.
Why Has Mask Guidance Changed?
In the early days of the pandemic, health experts discouraged the general public from buying N95 masks. This was because medical professionals across the country were facing a shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE). Thankfully, even in the face of recent supply chain issues, it has been many months since the supply of N95s has been an issue.
Even still, the CDC’s most recent guidance on selecting, properly wearing, cleaning, and storing face masks stops short of recommended people wear N95 masks. This has become quite a confusing statement, especially as the much more contagious omicron variant continues to spread rapidly across the globe.
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, spoke recently on the new CDC guidance and gave insight into what type of mask is best for COVID-19.
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” Wen said. “We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” she added, which is also known as a disposable mask and can be found at most drugstores and some grocery and retail stores. “You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”
Ideally, especially in crowded places or around people who may have been exposed to the virus, Wen advises that you should be wearing a KN95 or N95 mask. These types of masks offer the highest protection against COVID-19 and can be better fitted to your face to prevent tiny particles from getting into your nose and mouth.
What Are N95 Masks?
N95 masks, and their international counterparts known as KN95s and KF94s, are often made of multiple layers of polypropylene, a synthetic fiber. They are designed to achieve a very snug facial fit, with straps that go around the back of the head and edges that form a tight seal around the nose and mouth.
When worn correctly, N95 respirators are designed to filter out upwards of 95% of particulate matter in the air, preventing anything larger than .3 microns from passing through. That level of filtration effectively catches the airborne particles that can spread COVID-19.
A close second to these masks are the KN95 and KF94 masks, which are certified in China and South Korea respectively. These masks offer similar protection to N95 masks, with an almost identical 94% filtration.
“The best masks are some version of N95,” says Eric Toner, senior scientist of environmental health and engineering at Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. “N95s, KN95s and KF94s are functionally equivalent.”
It is important to note that maks with an exhaustive valve do not prevent the spread of the virus to other people.
Are N95 Masks Reusable?
The CDC said masks are meant for single-use but can be used more than once when there is a shortage. The agency says that N95 maks should not be worn more than five times.
Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, says when a mask becomes wet from exhalation or sweat, its efficacy decreases, and advised to rotate masks by day.
Advice on Upgrading Your Mask
With many types of masks to choose from, and with the new guidance from the CDC, it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed when looking for a new mask. When considering what type of mask is best for COVID-19, there are several things you should consider. These include things like what type of mask it is, how well it fits, and making sure it’s comfortable to wear. Here are some quick tips on upgrading your mask.
Make Sure It’s Comfortable
First things first: the best kind of mask you can wear is one that you’ll want to wear. This starts with finding a comfortable mask, that won’t cause you any discomfort while wearing it. “I could create the best mask in the world, but if it’s super-uncomfortable, people just aren’t going to wear it,” says A.J. Prussin, Ph.D., a research scientist in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Whatever mask you choose, make sure it’s something that you can comfortably wear regularly.
Understand the Types
The next thing to keep in mind when considering what type of mask is best for COVID-19 is the type. As previously mentioned, the gold standard for masks are the N95, KN95, and KF94s. These types of masks offer the highest level of protection you can get against omicron and other future variants. Whether you’re wearing an N95, a KN95, or a KF94, it won’t be completely effective unless the face mask fits your face properly. Make sure it fits snugly, without gaps around your nose, face, and mouth. This is why these masks typically have an adjustable nose wire for a better fit.
There are also disposable surgical-style masks. These types of masks are typically what we think of when we picture a mask and can be found in just about every convenience store these days. These surgical mask-style coverings offer less protection than N95 respirators, leading some experts to caution against depending on them amid the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Still, these masks do offer protection against COVID-19 and are still helpful for catching respiratory droplets. Look for a mask with at least three layers of material and a snug fit around the mouth, nose, and face. Further, if the elastic ear loops aren’t tight enough, try tying a knot or twisting the loop to make the fit tighter.
Finally, do not rely on fabric masks alone anymore. While these types of masks are good at protecting others from your respiratory droplets, they do not protect you against theirs. “I would say people should choose disposable masks, not cloth,” says Dr. Bob Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Health. “A cloth face mask is better than no mask if you don’t have access to the disposable ones. It helps protect others if you sneeze or cough, but it’s less effective than the disposable version or the N95 face mask, especially because many people don’t wash their cloth masks often.”
Get a Mask That Fits
Although many cloth masks don’t perform as well as medical masks, upgrading your mask is about more than just the material it’s made out of. For example, a well-fitting cloth mask that is made out of at least three layers of fabric would probably outperform a surgical mask that has gaps on the sides.
Different face shapes and sizes may be suited to different types of masks. If you buy one type of mask and find that it doesn’t fit and that you can’t adapt it well enough to close the gaps—or you just find it to be uncomfortable and difficult to wear—don’t give up. Try another brand or style.
Watch Out for Fakes
Unfortunately, when items such as N95 or KN95 masks are in high demand, there are bound to be manufacturers that produce fake or poor-quality masks to cash in. The CDC has warned that about 60% of KN95 respirators it tested in 2020 and 2021 are below standards.
The CDC lists manufacturers of authorized N95 masks on its agency website. Masks should have a printed logo of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and an approval number.
When shopping for a new mask, it’s always important to know who you’re buying from. Check with the CDC’s website, look for the NIOSH logo, and read customer reviews if you are unsure as to the quality of the masks you are purchasing.
Bottom Line: What Type of Mask Is Best For COVID-19?
Remember, when in doubt, any mask is better than none. While current CDC guidance recommends wearing the most protective mask you can, it stops short of a concrete recommendation for a reason. This is because recommending a specific mask type may give the impression that other types of masks are ineffective, and may actually discourage people from wearing them if they are unable to find a specif type or brand.
So, what is the bottom line then? What type of mask is best for COVID-19? To put it simply, the best type of mask for COVID-19 is the most effective one you can get your hands on. While N95 or KN95 masks remain the most effective if you cannot find one, disposable surgical masks and woven cloth masks that fit your face will still be effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
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