Which Mask Should I Choose for Better Protection Against COVID-19?

In January 2022, the CDC updated their mask guidelines in response to the highly transmissible omicron and other variants. This guidance clarifies which face coverings offer better forms of protection. Understanding these standards and their reasoning will help you evaluate Your options (i.e., such as cloth masks, respirators, disposable surgical masks etc.)  to make sound choices. 

The Difference Between Masks and Respirators

 

Masks are worn to protect others by containing droplets, spit and splashes from talking, coughing and sneezing. Face masks should not leave gaps. They should also not have extra openings such as vents and exhalation valves. 


Respirators are worn to protect the wearer. They offer better filtration and seals tighter around the face. According to the CDC, respirators filter out particles such as the COVID-19 virus.


Purchasing Face Masks

You can purchase face masks and respirators online or in stores. The CDC recommends wearing the most protective mask possible. It should fit well and be comfortable enough to wear consistently. 


When it comes to cloth masks, choose tightly woven fabrics constructed with multiple layers. It should block out light when you hold it up. Single layers of loosely woven cloth provide poor protection. 


For extra protection and better fit, the CDC advises wearing two masks, a cloth mask over a disposable one You can combine them with a fitter or a brace. If your disposable mask has ear loops, you can create a tighter fit by knotting the ear loops where they join the mask. Elastic straps for the back of the head and neck are more preferable to ear loops, however.


Disposable face masks can also be bought online. Due to the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant, the CDC recommends wearing NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety) approved respirators. One example is the N95 respirator. However, the CDC recommends reserving this face covering for healthcare settings.  Though KN95’s do not offer as much protection, they may still be considered, especially during N95 shortages.  Be sure that your N95 or K95 purchases are not counterfeit.


Can You Make a Face Mask at Home?

 

According to the CDC’s January 2022 face covering requirements, DIY cloth masks will most likely not offer a high level of protection due to issues like fit, gaps and the lack of fabric layers.

Masks and Respirators - Different Levels of Protection


The face covering with the best protection is the disposable NIOSH approved respirator. One example is the N95 respirator which is used for surgery. This face covering leaves no gaps and is built with two straps, not ear loops. 


The next best alternative is K95 disposable surgical masks which offer a close fit and good protection, though not ranked as high by the CDC as the NIOSH approved respirators.  These masks rely on ear loops. 


When choosing surgical masks, procedure masks or medical procedure masks, look for the following attributes:

  • Presence of nose wire

  • Multiple layers of non-woven material

  • Ability to fit over the mouth, nose and chin with no gaps


Cloth face coverings do not protect as well as the two previously mentioned disposable categories. However, they are comfortable and can be reused.  Again, avoid single, loosely woven fabric. Instead, choose multiple layers, tight fabric weave and close facial fit. 

When to Wear a Respirator


Although cloth masks are worn by most of the public, they are times we need to wear a respirator instead. Here are several situations described by the CDC:


  • COVID-19 vaccinations not updated

  • Having to care for someone with COVID-19

  • Health and medical conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19 illness (e.g., underlying medical issues, being immunocompromised and/or elderly)

  • Job interactions with many people

  • Use of public transportation

  • Public areas with no physical distancing, such as crowded indoor or outdoor settings


Due to the spread of omicron and the emergence of other variants, it is now important to consider much higher CDC recommended standards for choosing the right mask or face covering.