Which masks best protect you against COVID-19? The evidence is now clear
See what experts have to say and why.
Your best protection against COVID-19 is getting vaccinated and boosted when you are eligible. Still, breakthrough infections are not uncommon, which is why wearing highly protective masks is critically important. Here’s what you need to know.
Masks vary widely in the level of protection they offer, with N95s offering the highest level
How well a mask protects you depends on its materials, how well it fits and how consistently you wear it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while all masks provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators, like N95 masks, provide the highest level of protection.
Here’s how the CDC ranks masks in order from least to most protective:
- Loosely woven cloth masks
- Layered, finely woven makes
- Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95 masks (specialized filtering masks called respirators that are certified in China and designed to filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles)
- Well-fitting N95 masks. These are similar to KN95 respirators, only these are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC
Masks you should not wear? Those with exhalation valves or vents that allow particles to escape.
Layers and a good fit are key
According to the CDC, a well-fitting mask or masks with multiple layers are key for optimal protection. KN95 and N95 masks have built-in layers; however, you can also create multiple layers by wearing a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask, for example.
Masks with nose wires, a metal strip along the top of the mask, are helpful because they enable you to form a seal and prevent air from leaking from the top of your mask. They also help keep your mask from shifting. A mask fitter or brace over disposable or cloth masks help achieve a similar effect.
For illustrations and other best practices for wearing a well-fitting mask, visit the CDC’s Improve How Your Mask Protects You page.
What about children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends that anyone over the age of 2 wear a well-fitting face mask in public settings. This recommendation includes “the vast majority of children with underlying health conditions, with rare exception.”
How many times can you reuse your KN95 or N95 mask?
According to the CDC, health care professionals can wear an N95 mask up to five times in cases of shortages. While there is no gold standard for usage by the general public, experts recommend that you should toss your mask after two or three days; otherwise, your protection will likely be diminished. Remember, KN95 and N95 masks cannot be washed.
The federal government is providing free N95 masks
The Biden administration is offering up to three free N95 masks for everyone in the U.S. via pharmacies and community health centers that have partnered with the federal government. The program has begun and is expected to be fully running in early February, distributing 400 million free masks in total.
Even if you have a mask that offers the best protection, it won’t work if it doesn’t feel comfortable and you don’t wear it. At the end of the day, the best mask is the one you wear consistently and correctly.