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The Best Masks for Protection


Last updated 11/9/2023 at 1:24pm

Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask.

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.

Masks and respirators are effective at reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, when worn consistently and correctly.

Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others. It is most important to wear a well-fitting mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.

While all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitting respirators provide the highest level of protection. Wearing a highly protective mask or respirator may be most important for certain higher risk situations, or by some people at increased risk for severe disease.

The CDC ranks protective face masks in this order:

Highest level of protection: N95s and other respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Great protection: KN95s

Great protection: Well-fitting disposable surgical masks

Decent protection: Layered finely woven products

Least protection: Loosely woven cloth products

Similar to the CDC, Taubner recommends N95 and KN95 masks, especially in high-risk settings like hospitals or mass transit.

“The KN95 and N95 [masks] have a particulate filtration efficiency of 95% or above,” Taubner explains.

“Cloth masks [without filters], which don’t have a minimum threshold, probably test in the neighborhood of 20% or 30%.”

But it’s important to keep in mind that, depending on where you purchase your KN95 and N95 masks, you could be receiving less protection than you think, he says.

“People started testing them in labs, and they found out that the vast majority of these KN95s weren’t even coming close to meeting any of these standards,” Taubner says.

When purchasing masks, he suggests:

Buying from a reputable company

Seeking out companies that are transparent about their supply chain, including listing their manufacturer

Referring to the CDC’s guidance for masks

Masking methods for the most protection

Once you have a high-quality mask, you want to also make sure that you’re wearing it correctly to reduce your risk.

Taubner recommends these masking methods for optimal use:

Avoid leakage which are open areas at the top, bottom or sides of your mask

Make sure your hands are clean before touching your mask

Only touch the outside of your mask

If applicable, push the metal nose piece down for a snug fit

Taubner also advises against using the same mask two days in a row.

The CDC reports that “data from surface survival studies indicate that a 99% reduction in infectious SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses can be expected under typical indoor environmental conditions within three days.”

After one use, you should store a KN95 mask in a paper or plastic bag, note the date, and reuse it after at least four days have passed, says Taubner.

When in doubt, you should look to the manufacturer’s specific recommendations for the product.

But if you’ve visited a high-risk area, it’s probably best to toss your mask after one use, he notes.

And if your mask ever becomes difficult to breathe in after multiple uses, you should throw it away as well.

N95 masks are technically single-use products, says Taubner, but the CDC offers guidance on the best way to reuse them when they’re in short supply.

Another important reminder is that certain masks, including KN95 and N95, lose their efficiency when they’ve been washed, he adds.

“Let’s put it this way, a cloth mask is better than no mask. A three-ply mask is better than a cloth mask. An N95 and a KN95 would be better than the other masks,” Taubner says.

“Some just may not give you as much protection as you’d like. But in some cases, there’s no choice.”