Updated April 27, 2021.
By now, it is well known that wearing masks and social distancing are the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But while it may seem like you can find masks at any store these days, not all masks offer the same protection. If changing public health guidance has left you confused about which type of mask is right for you, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about face masks and COVID-19:
There are three common types of masks for the prevention of COVID-19: cloth masks, medical procedure masks, and N95 respirator masks. Many companies and individuals have fashioned cloth masks out of fabric The effectiveness of these masks varies with their material and fit. Medical procedure masks, also known as surgical, or “loop” masks, are looser fitting, held on to the user’s face by loops that go over each ear, and are disposable. These are the types of masks you see portrayed on medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy or ER. They are typically used for medical procedures to protect others from any germs the wearer may spread. N95 respirator masks are designed to form a seal around the user’s nose and mouth and use a special synthetic fabric to filter out at least 95% of the very small particles in the air, including the coronavirus. These masks are a vital component of the personal protective equipment (PPE) healthcare workers need to care for sick patients, along with eye protection, gowns and gloves.
Should I be wearing a mask?
Mask guidance varies depending on your vaccination status. If you have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the CDC says that you do not need to wear a mask while walking, biking, or exercising outdoors with household members, dining outdoors with people from other households, or while attending small outdoor gathers with fully vaccinated people or a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Those who are fully vaccinated should, however, continue to wear a mask while dining indoors, riding public transportation, visiting an indoor barber shop, salon, movie theater, shopping center, or museum, attending indoor gatherings with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and while attending crowded, outdoor events like parades, sporting events, or concerts.
Those two years of age and older who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, should continue to wear a face mask in all public settings and when around a mix of fully vaccinated and vaccinated people. If you haven’t been fully vaccinated, you can, however, go without a mask while exercising outdoors with members of your household and while attending small, outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people from other households.
Regardless of your vaccination status though, masks are required on public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the U.S., as well as in all U.S. public transit centers such as airports and train stations. This is to slow the spread of the virus and prevent those who have the virus and don’t know it from transmitting it to others. Masks are also recommended inside your home if you live or care for someone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive.
The public health agency has emphasized however, N95 masks should be reserved for healthcare providers and other medical first responders.
Which type of mask should I wear?
While wearing any mask can reduce your risk of COVID-19, not all are equally as effective. The CDC recently released a report that showed properly fitted masks can further reduce COVID-19 transmission. The study found that wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask or tightening the fit of a medical procedure mask by knotting the ear loops and tucking in the sides can decrease exposure to potentially infectious aerosols by 95%. To best protect yourself,follow these guidelines:
- Choose a mask that fits snugly against your nose, mouth and chin. Masks with nose wires are optimal. Mask “fitters” or “braces” can be used to help the mask fit more snuggly as well.
- Use cloth masks with multiple layers of fabric or wear a cloth mask over a disposable, medical procedure mask. Some cloth masks come with pockets for insertable filters and we think this a great approach.
- Use the “knot and tuck” method for medical procedure masks.
- Do not combine two disposable masks.
- Do not combine an N95 or KN95 mask with another mask.
It is important to remember that none of these options offer 100% protection. While wearing a mask or face covering, you should continue to practice social distancing and follow recommended preventative measures like hand washing to protect yourself and others.
Be sure to wash cloth masks routinely depending on the frequency of use, using a washing machine if possible. If it’s disposable, throw it away after use. It’s also important to be mindful when removing your mask, to not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. You should wash your hands immediately after touching it. For more information on which masks you should use, please see the CDC website.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.