Now that omicron is the dominant strain of COVID in the US, face masks have once again made a comeback. As a result of the variant’s startling spread, many cities and states have reinstated mask mandates, and federal mask mandates have been extended until March 18. This variant is even more contagious than delta, which was already twice as contagious as earlier COVID strains.
Before discussing masks, it’s important to underline that the best way to protect yourself against severe COVID-19 disease is to get vaccinated, including getting your booster shot as soon as you’re eligible (learn more about Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna booster eligibility). The omicron variant may be more successful at evading vaccine protection and causing breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated. That said, vaccines are still very effective at preventing hospitalizations and death as a result of COVID.
Experts agree that wearing a face mask is an important and effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19 infection, including the current omicron variant, regardless of your vaccination status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is currently preparing new guidance around masks, has so far shied away from telling the public exactly which type of mask to wear. At a Wednesday White House briefing, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reiterated the CDC’s recommendation that “any mask is better than no mask.”
We talked to two infectious disease specialists to determine the best face mask and face covering to protect yourself against the coronavirus in 2022, given the rapidly changing landscape. Their advice is below, followed by some updated recommendations based on their expertise.
Read more: 7 COVID face mask myths putting people at risk today
As the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate into new and more contagious variants, it’s more important than ever to wear a face covering that lowers your risk of transmission, even if you’re fully vaccinated. A mask helps protect those around you, and it also helps protect you.
According to experts, an N95 respirator is the most protective face covering that you can get against omicron and other viruses. An N95 is a disposable face covering that filters out at least 95% of airborne particles.
“An N95 is the best, if you can get it,” said Dr. Bob Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Health and author of the upcoming book Immunity Strong. “But they’re hard to get — the good ones are hard to find.” The CDC said that “when supplies are available, individuals may choose to use a basic disposable N95 respirator for personal use.” It recommends N95s labeled “surgical” for health care personnel.
One popular alternative to the N95 mask is the KN95 mask, which is the Chinese equivalent of the US standard. KN95s are made from the same material as N95s and are also designed to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. Another alternative is the KF94, the South Korean equivalent to an N95, which has a slightly different shape and 94% filtration efficacy.
“I would recommend a high-quality KF94 or KN95 for high-risk situations,” said Dr. Bob Bollinger, professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and founder of Emocha Health.
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,” Bollinger said. This is why these masks typically have an adjustable nose wire for a better fit.
Then there are surgical-style masks — the disposable kind of protective mask that you can find in 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.
That said, if they’re all you can find, surgical-style masks 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.
Whatever you do, don’t rely on a fabric mask alone anymore; they’re good at protecting others from your respiratory droplets, but not at protecting you against theirs, even with a filter pocket. “I would say people should choose disposable masks, not cloth,” Lahita said. “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.”
Another way to maximize protection is to double mask with a combination of cloth, surgical-style and N95-style face coverings. If you can’t find an N95, KN95 or KF94, Bollinger said, “a good-quality disposable mask under a cloth mask is a reasonable alternative, as long as the fit on the face, nose and mouth is tight.” You can also put an N95, KN95 or KF94 under a regular disposable mask for a tighter seal.
Whichever mask you choose, remember that it’s just one level of protection among many. Vaccines remain the most effective way to protect yourself from severe illness from COVID-19, and booster doses are proving to be essential when it comes to omicron specifically.
Different types of face masks offer varying amounts of protection. But not everyone needs the exact same level of protection, and specific situations may call for more or less caution.
In the context of the omicron surge, for example, there’s a higher risk of transmission, so it’s a good idea to upgrade your face covering accordingly. That means wearing a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94, or double masking. Per the CDC’s guidelines, wearing a mask indoors in public is important if you’re in an area with high transmission (which, thanks to omicron’s rapid spread, may soon be practically everywhere).
Similarly, if you’re unvaccinated, immunocompromised or otherwise at increased risk for COVID-19, you should wear the most protective face covering that you can get when you’re in indoor public settings, regardless of omicron.
Opting for higher protection is also a good idea whenever you’re in a riskier public setting, like traveling on public transportation or visiting a health care facility, no matter your health status. “Certainly, if you’re in a nursing home or a hospital, you must wear an N95,” Lahita said. “If you’re in a classroom with kids, the teacher should be wearing an N95.”
If you’re fully vaccinated, low-risk and in a region with less transmission, a disposable surgical-style mask is fine for regular, daily use. And when you’re outdoors, masking is less necessary, Lahita said. That’s unless you’re in a very crowded area, or will be in close contact with unvaccinated people.
In the US, N95s must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in order to qualify for medical use.
Because the KN95 and KF94 aren’t regulated by US authorities, it’s a bit trickier to know you’re getting the real deal, and counterfeit masks have proliferated throughout the pandemic. The FDA approved certain KN95s under an Emergency Use Authorization in 2020, and while that authorization has expired, the list of FDA-approved face mask manufacturers is still a helpful resource. The CDC also maintains a list of non-NIOSH-approved masks that have gone through filtration testing.
When it comes to KF94s, your best bet is to buy from a manufacturer in South Korea, which has its own strict testing associated with the KF94 label.
Another important note: Ignore the term “FDA registered” when shopping for masks. As the FDA notes on its website, facilities “involved in the production and distribution of medical devices intended for use in the United States are generally required to register annually with the FDA.” But, importantly, the “FDA’s registration and listing database does not denote approval, clearance or authorization of that facility or its medical devices.”
Below, we’ve pulled together a list of N95, KN95, KF94, surgical-style and cloth masks (which, again, we only recommend when doubling up). While we have not expressly “tested” most of these masks, they conform to the expert mask recommendations above.
Project N95 is a nonprofit that vets personal protective equipment to help shoppers make sure they’re buying legitimate, tested products. The shop sells N95s, KN95s, surgical masks and other types from a variety of brands. By shopping directly from Project N95, you can be more confident that your face covering is tested and trustworthy.
WWDoll’s KN95s are manufactured in a factory in China that’s on the FDA’s EUA list. They have five layers of fabric, a foldable 3D shape, ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge to help you achieve a more secure fit. If white respirators are a bit too clinical-looking for you, these also come in a variety of colors, including black and pink.
A previous favorite in the cloth mask space, Vida now makes disposable KN95s as well, and they’re from EUA-approved factories in China. Choose from a range of face mask colors, and regular or kids’ sizes. You can buy anywhere from a 10-pack to a 1,000-pack of these KN95s, and send your used ones back to Vida to be recycled.
Powecom’s KN95s are affordable, with a pack of 10 ringing up at around $22. They feature the standard five-layered adjustable design with ear loops and come from an EUA-authorized Chinese manufacturer. Reviewers say they’re comfortable and form a nice tight seal around the face, with no gaps around the edges.
These KF94s from LG Health Care are made in Korea with four layers of material. Unlike KN95s, KF94s have a double-tiered design that allows a closer fit, yet also adds more room in the mask to breathe. Since these also have an adjustable ear loop design, it’s even easier to get a gap-free seal.
While a bit pricier per mask than the disposable masks you’ll find in convenience stores, EvolveTogether’s masks have everything you need — they’re filtration-tested, comfortable and as sustainable as a single-use product can possibly be. The face mask packaging is both recyclable and biodegradable. They feature four layers of material, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. (EvolveTogether also makes KN95s, but they’re often sold out.)
WeCare’s disposable face masks are individually sealed, which is helpful for hygiene purposes when you’re on the go. The three-layered masks have ear loops and a nose wire and are sturdy and reasonably comfortable. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, including both kids and adult sizes. They come in a box of 50.
There’s something to be said for a go-to brand of disposable masks that you can easily pick up in person when you need to. These masks from ICU Health are widely available at stores like Target and Walmart. These face masks are not winning any points for innovation or comfort, but they do the job, offering three layers of protection, ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge. And because they’re relatively cheap, they’re perfect for double masking.
If you plan to use a cloth mask to double-mask with, Uniqlo’s Airism masks are a comfortable pick for everyday wear. They’re made of the same breathable, cooling fabric that Uniqlo’s activewear and undergarments are made from, which helps alleviate the discomfort of wearing a cloth mask. They have three layers of fabric plus a built-in washable filter, and they come in four sizes from small to extra-large.
One circumstance where a cloth mask has definite advantages, at least as far as comfort, is working out. Wearing an N95-style respirator during exercise isn’t feasible, but you can add a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask for extra protection, and the Under Armour Sportsmask is a great breathable face mask contender — it’s one of CNET’s picks for the best face masks for exercise. This face mask has three layers of breathable fabric and doesn’t cling to your face or make you feel hot, instead offering a cooling effect.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.