First Of All, Do Face Masks Work?
Yes, face masks are proven to work. They work best when everyone wears them, and when we also follow other preventive measures including handwashing and social distancing. As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, these actions are still necessary.
People often ask what the best way is to wear a face mask in order to ensure the most protection. And now, as more contagious COVID-19 variants spread around the globe, it has become even more crucial to wear the best face mask you can. In light of these virus variants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidelines for mask wearing.
Not all Masks Provide the Same Protection
While we know that N95 masks provide the best protection against COVID-19, these kinds of masks are in short supply and therefore reserved for healthcare workers. Experts recommend surgical masks and cloth face masks, as these also work well if used correctly.
Dr. Sarah Haessler, chief epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Baystate Health, explains that homemade masks are often ill-fitting, not made from the most ideal materials, and lack the layers that could provide the best protection from COVID-19. So, what is the best face mask to wear? “People should be wearing masks that are well-fitted and have at least three layers,” says Haessler.
When looking for a mask, there are three major things to consider:
How well it fits
- How well it filters the air
- How many layers it has
“Get the best mask that you can,” urges Dr. Haessler. Here are some tips on how to do that.
Choose a Mask that Fits Snugly
Your mask should fit snugly against your face and completely cover your nose and mouth. Often a mask will leave open gaps on the sides, allowing air with respiratory droplets to get in and out around the edges of your mask.
Choose a mask with a nose wire (a metal strip along the top of the mask) to prevent air from leaking in or out the top of your mask. When fitting a mask to your face, be sure to bend the wire over your nose so that it fits as close to your face as possible.
The CDC also recommends using a mask fitter or brace if you can. These devices can be used over a cloth or disposable face mask to keep air from leaking around the edges.
There are multiple ways to get a tighter fit even if you don’t have a mask fitter or a perfectly fitted mask. In this video, the director of Infection Prevention at UNC Hospitals demonstrates how to get a tighter fit if you’re wearing an earloop mask.
Choose a Mask with Layers or “Double Mask”
Masks with layers will stop respiratory droplets from getting in or out of your mask. Studies have shown that the best protection comes from wearing a fitted mask with 3 layers including flexible, tightly woven fabric over a material made to filter out particles. There is more than one way to make sure your mask has enough layers to protect you.
According to the CDC, “One layering strategy is to use a cloth mask that has multiple layers of fabric. Another strategy is to wear two masks or a “double mask.”
Wearing a double mask can make your inner mask fit better while adding more layers to improve filtration. Both better fit and better filtration reduce the number of respiratory droplets that come in and out through your mask. See Dr. Anthony Fauci demonstrate how to wear a double mask correctly (on Today).
See the science behind the CDC’s recommendations.
If you're planning to make your own face covering at home, you can find face mask patterns and face mask templates and tutorials online. See the CDC's Guide to Masks.
Check for Gaps
Once you have your mask on, it is a good idea to check how well it is fitted to your face.
Cup your hands around the outside edges of the mask to check for gaps.
- Check for air flowing out near your eyes or the sides of the mask.
- Breathe through the mask: Do you feel warm air coming out the front, and can you see the mask material move out and in? Those are signs that you have a good fit.
4 Things to Watch Out For
There are some problems to look out for when improving your mask.
The CDC notes that there are certain mask combinations (if you’re double masking) that you should not use:
Do not combine two medical procedure masks – these masks do not fit tightly, so the fit would not be improved.
- Do not combine a KN95 mask with any other mask, and only wear one KN95 at a time. Learn about the types of face masks on the CDC website.
- Be sure that it is not hard to breathe.
- Be sure that your mask is not blocking your vision in any way.
Keep Following Safety Measures
Vaccination and falling COVID-19 numbers are positive signs. Still, hospitalizations and death counts are high and the fast-spreading variants of the virus (along with the threat of post-Super Bowl infection outbreaks) are still cause for concern.
Only about 10% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated so far, so we have a long way to go to achieve herd immunity. We also don’t yet know if vaccinated people can spread COVID-19.
All of this means that handwashing, distancing, and mask-wearing will remain important for some time. “There are still risks,” says Dr. Haessler. “It’s not time to let our guard down yet.”
Learn more about the CDC’s updated guidance for mask wearing.