Blog

March 15, 2021

Choosing the Right Type of Mask

By Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP

Here we are, nearly one year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, and a lot about our lives has changed. While many communities remain tightly locked down due to high COVID-19 case numbers, many areas have opened back up in limited capacity to include schools, shopping, restaurants and some outdoor gatherings. Until the vast majority of our communities are vaccinated, it is strongly recommended to wear a mask (or better still, double mask) and to social distance. When you do go out and about, the best protections you have are vaccination and wearing your mask.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion of the different types of masks available for purchase. From N95, KN95, surgical or reusable cloth masks, there is a large variety to choose from, and making the right choice can often be the difference between your safety or catching the virus.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently issued guidance to help you choose the right type of mask that offers maximum protection.

Disposable Masks

At the beginning of the pandemic, disposable masks were tough to come by, and as soon as stores obtained a shipment, they sold out rapidly. Thankfully, these masks are in abundant supply now that manufacturing has caught up to the demand.

When choosing which disposable masks to buy, be sure to consider these factors:

  • Look for an indication that the mask consists of multiple layers of non-woven material.
  • Ensure the masks have nose wires, which help prevent air from leaking out of the mask's top.
  • Do not wear masks with gaps around the face or sides of the nose, as they do not offer a proper seal.

Cloth Masks

Many people already own a cloth mask. Nearly every retailer or online boutique store has these masks for sale, in a variety of patterns. Some masks display the logo for sports teams, and some masks tackle political issues. While it is tempting to grab the one that strikes the right chord for us aesthetically, there are a few things we must consider before purchasing a cloth mask:

  • Look for masks that have multiple layers of tightly woven and breathable fabric.
  • Look for a nose wire.
  • Hold the mask up to a bright light source. One that is suitable for COVID-19 protection will block the light.
  • Do not buy a mask that has exhalation valves or vents.
  • Do not wear masks with a single layer of fabric.

CDC also recommends that you wear two masks for optimal protection. The bottom mask should be a disposable mask that meets all of the parameters above, and then you should wear a cloth mask over the top (ensure it also meets all of the qualifications).

You could also wear a KN95 mask, which is similar to the N95 mask that is used by — and always be reserved for — health care workers. Just ensure that any KN95 masks you buy meet the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health requirements for respirators. You should avoid KN95 masks if you have facial hair that prevents a proper seal or if you find it difficult to breathe when wearing them, and you should never wear them in conjunction with other masks. Beware of counterfeit KN95 masks, which currently account for roughly 60% of those now being sold in the United States.

You must ensure that you and your loved ones are protected from the virus that causes COVID-19, and that begins by taking adequate masking precautions. If you haven't examined the masks you currently use, please check them against the CDC guidelines. If they do not meet the requirements, then purchase masks that do as soon as you can.