Which mask should you wear?

By The Health News Team | January 18, 2022
Woman wearing mask

Most COVID-conscious people have a basket, drawer or hook overflowing with face masks. They might be fabric, surgical or specialty. And now, they might be unnecessary in some locations.

According to recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), face masks are no longer required in all public indoor locations. However, there are a few spots where they may still be mandated — including, in communities where COVID-19 levels are considered high.

Here’s what you need to know now about face masks:

Mask-up when warranted. While face masks are no longer mandated in California – with the exception of schools, health care settings, public transportation and a couple of other locales — some people may want to consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor public places, when sick and when around people who are or might be sick. In fact, the state strongly recommends it, especially for unvaccinated people and all others who are at high risk for severe illness. Additionally, some California counties and private businesses may still require masking indoors.

Snug is safest. If you continue to wear a mask, it might as well be effective. Face masks should completely cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides of the face. While comfort is important in ensuring you’ll continue to wear the mask as needed, a snug fit will help keep you better protected during an exposure. However, avoid making the mask so snug that it is difficult to breathe. If you have a beard, consider adding a mask fitter or brace, or double mask for added protection.

Mind the gap. Face mask coverage should be without gaps, and masks should have a nose wire to prevent air — and germy aerosols and particles — from leaking in or out. Do a gap check: Put on your face mask and exhale heavily — if you can feel your breath’s breeze on your nose, cheeks, chin or neck, your mask likely needs to be adjusted.

N is for NIOSH-approved. Studies have shown that authentic National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved N95 masks, also known as respirators, and authentic KN95 masks do the best to protect people from the highly transmissible omicron variant — capturing and filtering 95% of airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns. NIOSH-approved N95 masks pass rigorous inspection and certification processes in the U.S., and authentic KN95 masks must meet Chinese standards for effectiveness and are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sale in the U.S.

The rest are second best (but not bad). While well-fitting surgical-style masks or cloth masks — in that order — are better than no mask at all, consider them your second choice if you can get authentic N95 or KN95 masks. But buyer beware: The CDC estimates that approximately 60% of the N95 and KN95 masks currently being sold in the U.S. are counterfeit. Without access to one of the more authentic protective masks, try snugly layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask to better catch droplets and aerosols.

While the CDC’s updated guidance does not state that you must wear an N95 or KN95 in areas where transmission is high, health officials strongly suggest you consider it. Most importantly, the guidelines state that to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, it is recommended that you “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”

This story was updated in March 2022 to reflect updates to mask mandates.

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