Masks are one of the best ways we can protect ourselves and others against the COVID-19 virus. But with new developing variants, research has discovered that not all masks are created equal. Depending on your COVID-19 community level and how contagious the current COVID-19 variant is, you may need to re-think which mask you wear in public.
Jeremy Biggs, MD, MSPH, an associate professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at University of Utah Health, offers advice on selecting a mask.
Choose a high-quality mask
The most protective mask you can wear is one that fits well and is comfortable enough to wear consistently. Some masks are designed and tested to meet standards. Others offer better protection than others.
These specialized filtering masks, such as N95s, provide the highest level of protection—if they are worn correctly. These masks are usually more tight-fitting and filter out particles, allowing the air to go through the material rather than around the mask. It’s important to have the proper fit and to wear it continuously in order to be effective. Respirators may not be the best choice because they are harder to tolerate and wear consistently.
Disposable surgical or procedure masks and KN95s offer great protection. They are the most widely available, and most surgical masks offer several layers. For the best protection, make sure the mask covers your nose, mouth, and chin and fits snug against your face.
A cloth mask is better than no mask, but it’s not as good as a three-layer surgical mask, KN95, or N95 respirator in protecting against any variants. According to Biggs, cloth masks are recommended if:
- High-level protection masks—N95s, KN95s, and surgical masks—become short in supply.
- When higher-level masks can’t be tolerated by certain individuals.
- If it’s the only mask available.
If you do wear a cloth mask, chose one with multiple layers and wear one that fits well and is comfortable.
Doubling up is not necessary if the mask is layered—there is no evidence that doubling up will help. For single-layer cloth masks, it’s reasonable to double up.
Choose an authentic mask
Some masks are designed and tested to meet certain standards and requirements. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) certifies N95 respirators. Quality N95 masks will have a label on the box that states they are FDA and NIOSH approved. You can check to see if your mask is NIOSH approved by searching the NIOSH Certified Equipment List.
NIOSH does not certify KN95s. However, you can check to see if the brand has been tested by the CDC. You can also check the CDC’s list of potential counterfeits. According to the CDC, about 60 percent of KN95 respirators evaluated by NIOSH during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not meet requirements.
Choose a mask for your situation
You should consider what type of mask to use based on your situation, such as:
- When caring for someone who is sick
- If you are immunocompromised, have a chronic health condition, or at higher risk of getting infected
- If you are a health care worker or interact with large numbers of the public
- When using public transportation
- When you are indoors, in crowded public places
- If you are not up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations
What’s most important about a mask is putting one on. Masking is one of the prevention measures that can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.