While not as sustainable as reusable cloth masks, surgical face masks are good to have on hand if you’re in a pinch or if you just want a quick supply of ready-to-go options. Even with many Americans fully vaccinated and states relaxing their COVID restrictions, outbreaks persist across the country and more contagious variants continue to pose a threat. And in other parts of the world like India, the virus is worse than ever before. We may have new guidelines from the CDC around travel and outdoor-mask use, but we are far from done with wearing masks altogether.
According to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health who was involved in two of the COVID-vaccine trials, the new COVID variants, combined with pandemic fatigue and vaccine misconceptions, make mask use more important now than ever. “Even if you’ve been vaccinated, it is crucial to continue to wear masks. I’ve personally known people who have gotten sick even after they were fully vaccinated,” she says. Masks are more important indoors than outdoors; in fact, the CDC says vaccinated people can skip masks outdoors depending on the activity and vaccination status of others around them. “Vaccinated or not, people do not need to wear masks outside if alone or with members of their household. For social gatherings, they can remain maskless if most of the group is vaccinated,” says Dr. Kagya Amoako, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of New Haven. Everyone should still wear masks when attending large outdoor gatherings like concerts, parades, or sports events. If you’re still not sure what to do, he recommends looking at the CDC’s mask-wearing guidelines chart. “It’s a great resource to help the public quickly understand how to be safe when outdoors and also indoors,” he says. Finally, when you can’t avoid spending long periods of time in close quarters with other people, like on a plane or at a doctor’s appointment, doubling up on masks is an easy way to lower your risk.
The very best disposable face masks, of course, are N95 masks — the gold-standard pandemic masks, approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which filter out 95 percent of airborne particles. But the CDC recommends that the public not buy N95 masks, to ensure there’s a supply for health-care workers. There are also the disposable surgical masks worn by doctors and other health-care professionals, which are cleared by the FDA as meeting certain standards, but they’re not available to the general public, so they’re off the table, too. What is available are nonmedical masks.
One of the more popular disposable options is the imported KN95 mask, considered the Chinese-made equivalent to the N95. Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University who co-authored a study on the efficiency of various mask materials, says that, while the certification processes for KN95 and N95 masks are “nearly identical,” many of the KN95 masks on the market today are counterfeit. There’s no way for you to tell an authentic mask from a fake, but fortunately Cui and his lab have found that even counterfeit KN95 masks can have a filtration efficiency of 75 to 80 percent. (Cui’s company, 4C Air, sells a KN95 mask that his research has shown can filter 95 percent of small particles.)
Most of the rest of what you’ll see are pleated disposable masks. Florida Atlantic University engineering professor Siddhartha Verma, lead author of a recent study on the efficiency of different mask materials, says the quality of these masks varies. But the most important thing to remember during this crisis is that any mask is better than no mask. “There’s even been a good amount of recent data indicating that masks are effective for protecting the wearer,” says Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a family-medicine specialist in New York City. “For people who did contract COVID while wearing a mask, the viral load that they were exposed to was much less. And so while they did become infected, in certain cases, their symptoms were much less because we know that viral load is tied to the severity of the disease.”
How should your mask fit?