N95, Surgical or Cloth — What’s the Best Mask to Wear for COVID-19?

Photo Courtesy: Joyce Diva/iStock

Face masks are a key tool in protecting yourself and others from COVID-19. But with all the shifting guidance about masks over the course of the pandemic, you may be wondering — what’s the best type of mask to wear for COVID-19 prevention?

Lots of experts have been recommending that everyone upgrade their cloth masks to higher quality surgical or N95 masks. And in January 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance to encourage people to wear the most protective mask available.

So which type should you choose? Learn how to choose the best, most protective mask for you.

What Are the Different Types of Face Masks?

You’ve probably seen and used a wide variety of masks over the course of the pandemic. With so many different types available now, it’s important to know what the differences are.

Least Protection: Cloth Masks

Cloth masks vary quite a bit — some people make their own cloth masks at home from different materials, and companies sell a wide variety of cloth masks as well. In general, cloth masks are the least protective mask type.

Experts recommended that people wear cloth masks at the beginning of the pandemic, when supplies of other mask types were very low. But with more contagious variants and better supplies of other mask types, experts now recommend that people wear more protective mask types instead.

If you only have access to cloth masks, wearing a cloth mask is still better than wearing no mask at all. Choose cloth masks with multiple layers of finely woven material.

More Protection: Surgical Masks

Well-fitting surgical masks (also called procedure masks) offer more protection than cloth masks. They’re made from non-woven materials that filter out more of the small particles that can carry COVID-19.

There are three levels of surgical masks graded by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) as levels one through three, with three offering the highest level of protection. Choose a level three mask if available.

Make sure to choose surgical masks with nose wires that fit snugly around your face. You can try knotting the ear loops to make the mask fit more snugly — or find masks that tie around the back of your head for a better fit.

Most Protection: N95 Masks

Well-fitting N95 masks (also called N95 respirators) provide the best protection. This type meets standards from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for filtering up to 95% of particles from the air — including tiny aerosol particles that can carry COVID-19.

Unlike cloth and surgical masks, N95s are designed to create an airtight seal around the mouth and nose. That means it’s really important to get an N95 that fits your face well and creates a good seal.

Avoid N95 masks with exhalation valves — these masks don’t filter the air you’re breathing out, so you could spread the virus to people around you.

KN95, KN94 and Other Masks Similar to N95s

While N95 masks meet the U.S. standards for highest protection, KN95 and other respirator mask types meet similar standards in other countries. So a well-fitting KN95 or KF94 mask may provide about as much protection as an N95.

Is It Okay for Regular People to Buy N95s?

Yes — N95s are a good choice for regular people to use in indoor public spaces and other higher-risk situations.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC and other authorities told the public not to buy N95 masks. This was due to supply shortages that made it hard for hospitals to keep N95s in stock. But now that supplies of these masks have increased, the CDC is encouraging people to use these very protective masks.

The only type of mask the CDC says regular people should still avoid buying is “surgical N95” masks. This level of mask offers extra protection during surgery and other procedures and the CDC encourages the public to reserve these for healthcare workers.

Can You Reuse N95 Masks?

Yes, you can. These masks are technically “single-use” — but depending on how you’re using them, you may be able to wear them several times before you throw them away.

Experts recommend placing worn N95 masks in a clean paper bag for a couple of days in between uses. The virus can’t survive that long on surfaces, so it’s safe to reuse the mask after a couple of days. You can label the bag with the date, and keep a few masks in rotation this way.

How many times you can reuse a mask depends on what you used it for. If you’re just wearing it for short trips to the store, you may be able to use it up to five times. If you’re wearing a mask all day in a higher-risk setting, you’ll probably want to replace it more often.

And don’t try to wash N95s — washing can damage the material and make them less effective. If you get your mask dirty or bend it out of shape, it’s time for a new mask.

When Do I Need to Wear a Mask?

Currently, the CDC recommends that everyone ages two and older who isn’t fully vaccinated needs to wear a mask in indoor public spaces. And vaccinated people should wear masks in indoor public spaces when local COVID-19 rates are high.

Many stores, restaurants and other businesses require everyone to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. And many people choose to keep wearing masks after getting their vaccines, to provide even more protection for themselves and others.

You don’t necessarily need to wear masks outdoors, as the virus spreads much more easily indoors than outdoors. But it’s a good idea to mask up outdoors if you’re in a crowded area or may be in close contact with people who are not fully vaccinated.

Bottom Line: Upgrade to N95-Level Masks, If You Can

So, what’s the best mask type to wear for COVID-19? If you’re able to find well-fitting N95 masks (or KN95 or other similar certified versions), those will provide the best protection from COVID-19. Well-fitting, high-quality surgical masks can also provide a high level of protection.

If you’re still wearing cloth masks, it’s time to consider an upgrade. Cloth masks are less effective than surgical and N95 masks, and probably won’t protect you well from more contagious variants.

And no matter what type of mask you choose, always make sure that it:

●  Completely covers your nose and mouth

●  Fits snug against your face on all the edges

Masking will be around for the foreseeable future — so it’s also important to find masks that are comfortable for you. Try different brands and choose the most protective mask that fits you well and that you’re willing to wear consistently.

Resource Links:

  • “Types of Masks and Respirators” via CDC
  • “Your Guide to Masks” via CDC
  • “How Well Do Face Masks Protect Against COVID-19?” via Mayo Clinic
  • “Ready for an N95? Here’s How to Find a High-Quality One That Fits You Well” via NPR
  • “Can You Reuse a KN95 or N95 Mask? Experts Say Yes, but Follow These Step” via Smithsonian Magazine