As the latest COVID-19 variant drives an avalanche of new infections, you’re wise to wonder about the best face mask for omicron. Will a cloth mask still protect you? Should you be double masking? According to some health experts, it’s time to upgrade.
The U.S. reported record-high COVID-19 case counts at the start of 2022—a seven-day average of over 400,000 new cases per day—driven largely by the omicron variant. The news of rising cases comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced expanded access to boosters and (in a move that concerned many), reduced the amount of time required for quarantining. Now, severals experts are also recommending it’s time to upgrade cloth face masks to a KN95 or N95 respirator masks, or to disposable surgical masks.
Just how important is the switch? The CDC’s most recent mask guidelines, which were last updated in October 2021, recommends wearing any well-fitting mask with at least two layers. But since the omicron variant emerged as a global concern in November 2021, many health experts are advising better protection. “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of omicron,” CNN medical analyst Leana Wen, M.D., told the news outlet recently.
Health experts have long warned that while cloth masks do a good job of blocking larger respiratory droplets that could contain coronavirus particles, they’re not so great at blocking the smaller aerosols—which can still infect you. This is where respirator masks are potentially superior. Take the KN95 mask, for example. At the most basic level, it’s four layers of material vs. the typical one or two layers found in a cloth mask. Crucially, one of those layers is made of polypropylene, a type of plastic that electrostatically filters out virus particles. Surgical masks, the three layered masks that medical professionals typically wear, are also commonly made of polypropylene.
Those additional layers could make a big difference in effectiveness. The low-tech material of a cloth mask, coupled with what’s often a looser fit, means that the typical cloth face mask may have upwards of 75% inward and outward leakage, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. N95 masks, meanwhile, are 95% effective at filtering particles in the air (when fitted properly), according to the CDC; and surgical masks are typically 5% to 10% less effective than N95s, according to CNN.
So, what should you do with your cloth masks? Experts note a cloth mask is still better than nothing at all. And if you’re committed to your cloth mask style game, consider layering it with a disposable surgical mask underneath to ensure better protection. But at this point, many experts are encouraging people to upgrade to respiratory masks.
Early pandemic concerns about shortages of PPE (recall that shortages early on in the pandemic led health experts to recommend you don’t buy N95s or surgical masks in order to save them for health care workers, who needed them most) are less of a concern today. “If we’re going to go as far as to say that masks are required—when we don’t come from a mask-wearing culture and people don’t like wearing masks—at least recommend that they wear the most effective mask,” Dr. Wen said. The CDC guidelines, for the record, still advise not buying surgical masks.
When shopping for respirator masks, beware of counterfeits. The CDC notes that some 60% of N95s currently in the U.S. are actually fake. Counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks aren’t certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and therefore might not provide adequate protection. To make sure you’re getting the real thing, look for markings on the mask. Certified masks should be stamped with N95 or KN95 and have an approval (TC) number. (See the CDC’s full list of ways to spot fakes here.)