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Face masks are essential to effectively preventing the spread of COVID-19. Along with frequently washing your hands and practicing social distancing, wearing a mask reduces your chance of getting infected and prevents the virus from spreading to others. It's important to wear a mask whether you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or not, because asymptomatic carriers can still spread the virus.

“Some people may say, ‘I was tested and I don’t have COVID-19, so I don’t need to wear a mask.’ Actually, you do, because you’re still potentially on the receiving end of the virus,” said Mary Beth Graham, MD, infectious disease specialist.

However, not all masks and materials are created equal. Some face coverings are ineffective and could put you at risk of getting infected with COVID-19.

Most Effective Face Masks for COVID-19

N95 respirators. The CDC has identified N95 respirators, also called N95 masks, as the most effective face masks against COVID-19. As such, the CDC recommends these be prioritized for use by health care workers.

Disposable medical masks. You likely saw these face masks, also called surgical masks, in health care settings even before the pandemic. Now, they're available in practically any pharmacy or retail store. Note that these are not the same as N95 masks or other respirators. Disposable medical masks should not be reused. Wear them once, and then throw them away.

Cloth face masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both agree that reusable, cloth face masks are effective against COVID-19. These masks should be made with a washable, tightly woven fabric and have two or more layers of material or two layers of material with a filter in between.

WHO recommends masks with three layers of material:

  • An inner layer made from an absorbent material, like cotton
  • A middle layer made from non-woven fabric, preferably polypropylene
  • An outer layer made from a non-absorbent material, like polyester or a cotton and polyester blend

Ideally, cloth masks should be washed daily. This is especially important in colder months, when our noses run more frequently and contaminate the inside of the mask. Dr. Graham recommends having multiple masks, so you have options to choose from when other masks are being washed.

While these masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19, they lose their effectiveness if they aren’t handled properly. This is the right way to wear, store and wash your face mask.

Least Effective Face Masks for COVID-19

The more we learn about COVID-19, the more we understand why certain face masks are better than others. The types of face coverings that you should avoid wearing include:

Bandanas. They leave a large opening underneath your chin, which could allow particles infected with COVID-19 to get into your nose and/or mouth.

Face shields by themselves. When worn with a face mask, face shields provide an extra defense against COVID-19. If you wear one without a mask, viral particles are able to travel out and around the face shield, potentially infecting you or others.

Scarves. Many scarves aren't thick enough to keep particles infected with COVID-19 from entering your nose or mouth. If you're going to wear a scarf outside, make sure you wear a face mask underneath it.

There is not yet conclusive data on whether gaiters are effective face masks for COVID-19. A Duke University study suggested that wearing gaiters could be worse than not wearing any covering, while a study from the University of Georgia found that multilayer gaiters were more effective than some face masks. Dr. Graham said the important factor for gaiters is the number of layers: “If you get a gaiter made of cotton that’s triple-layered, then it would be fine.”

For those who have had trouble breathing when wearing a mask, Dr. Graham recommends trying a different style of face covering, for example, switching from a cloth mask to a disposable one. Considering the recent surges in positive COVID-19 cases and the number of statewide mask mandates across the country, wearing a face mask — and wearing it properly — is in everyone’s best interest.

“The recommendation to wear a mask when you are in public and unable to social distance is not going away. Masks are intended to protect everybody, so trying to find a way to comply and wear some sort of mask is a good thing,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

More information on the choosing and wearing most effective masks is available from the CDC and the World Health Organization

Add new comment

on January 26, 2021 - 6:39 am

Your article just said "Most Effective Face Masks for COVID-19
Disposable medical masks and Clothe face masks", (and NOT N95 or even mentioned KN95.) ?

on February 9, 2021 - 3:12 pm

Hello Brad – The CDC has identified that the N95 mask is the most effective and, as such, also recommends that these masks be prioritized for use by health care workers. The CDC also recommends that the public wear disposable medical masks or cloth face masks with multiple layers, which are effective. Recently, public health professionals have recommended that the public consider wearing multiple masks to assure adequate covering of your mouth and nose.

on January 19, 2021 - 4:39 pm

Thank you for the very informative article!! I listen to you often on TMJ 620 radio.