Cases going up in your area and leaving you wondering what’s the best mask for COVID? We talk about why wearing a face mask is a good way to protect yourself and others, as well as what the latest info says on how to choose a mask that’s right for you.
Will wearing a face mask really offer me protection against covid?
We know that COVID-19 spreads mostly through respiratory droplets. (The tiny little bits of moisture that leave your mouth or nose when you talk, breathe, sneeze, etc.) When you’re sick with any respiratory virus or illness, like COVID, those droplets leave you and then hang around in the air for awhile. If someone’s near you, they may breathe them in and become infected with whatever germ you’re fighting.
Because COVID is a respiratory virus, overall research has told us that wearing masks can help prevent the spread. Though there is some data out there that disagrees, at this point in the pandemic there’s an overwhelming amount of advice that shows they help. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed they lowered transmission of droplets by as much as 70%. And that old idea that masks only protect others and not the wearer? That’s just not true. Your mask can help prevent you from inhaling larger respiratory droplets that might contain COVID.
What’s the latest guidance on mask-wearing?
So who needs to wear a face mask? Currently, the CDC recommends masks indoors for anyone 2 years of age or older who is not fully vaccinated. Even if you are fully vaccinated, the CDC says its good to wear one when you’re in a crowded space or if your area’s COVID rates are high.
Are some masks better than others?
If you’re wanting to get the most out of your mask, one thing to realize is that not all them are created equal. When you hold your mask up to the sun or a lamp, you shouldn’t be able to see the light coming through it. If you can, it’s too thin to offer you solid protection from COVID droplets that are in the air. Fit matters, too. Your mask should rest up against your skin without gaps or holes. If there are any gaps, there’s room for droplets to get in.
One thing we do: consider the situation. Depending on your risk level (which you should talk about with your doc) and vaccination status, you may want to save your most protective masks for more high-risk situations, like travel, fitness classes, if you’re pregnant, or when you’re in crowded, high-contact places. Meeting up with all vaccinated friends and family? If you still want to wear a mask, it’s a situation where you might feel safe enough using a comfortable cloth mask instead.
What are generally the best masks for COVID protection?
Guidance on what the appropriate or even best mask for COVID has changed as new variants of concern have cropped up. For example, for a large portion of the pandemic, surgical, cloth, or medical-grade masks were said to offer a good amount of protection. And they still do help. However, both the delta and omicron variants of COVID spread more easily.
The omicron variant is highly contagious. Particles can float around in the air for minutes to hours. Even if you take your mask off when others leave the room, you might still inhale COVID particles. As a result, keeping yourself as safe as possible may mean you’re due for a mask upgrade. With omicron, high-filtration masks are recommended. That means they should filter 95% or more of very small particles. You often hear these masks referred to as N95 or KN95 masks. (But be careful! According the CDC, about 60% of masks in the U.S. labeled as KN95s are actually fakes.)
So what if you can’t find real KN95s? Or if you strongly prefer cloth masks? There are some cloth masks for COVID with strong reputations. For example, the Cambridge Mask Pro filters greater than 95% of particles. So does Vogmask. But even so: there’s still a case for actual N95 and KN95 masks. These masks are made with a special material. The material itself helps with filtering. And it also carries an electrostatic charge. That means the mask pulls particles in. It intercepts them. Which then helps prevent you from breathing them in.
Even the best mask for COVID can’t work if…
Disposable mask shouldn’t be reused. Remember the electrostatic charge we talked about? Well, it can wear off over time. Cloth masks need to be washed whenever dirty and at a minimum of at least once per day. Just like your hands and phone, your mask itself gets germy. Don’t allow those germs to hang out on the fabric. If the inside of yours gets soaked, you need to swap it out for a new one.
It’s good to keep in mind: masks that reliably filter droplets and fit your face well are the best masks for COVID. If you have the best mask on the market—but it doesn’t snugly seal to your face—find a new one. You’re getting less protection than you would from a lesser-grade mask that actually fits. Also, have a beard or other facial hair? You need to shop around to find a mask with a great fit.
Note: what mask is best for you may depend on your medical history, vaccination status, and other factors. The information here is educational. Talk with your physician for personalized advice.