The best face masks to protect you from Omicron

Key points to remember

  • Experts say cloth masks may not offer enough protection amid the Omicron surge.
  • Compared to cloth and surgical masks, the N95 respirator offers the best protection against COVID-19.
  • There are many tips to improve mask effectiveness, such as double masking, using mask adjusters, or tying ear loops to improve fit.

At the start of the week, a declared official the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was evaluating whether to update its mask guidelines to recommend switching to N95 or KN95 masks to improve protection against the Omicron variant.

However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that there are no plans to change the mask guidelines to advise Americans to wear higher quality masks. The agency is sticking to its “any mask is better than no mask” guidelines.

But because of Omicron’s surge, experts point out that cloth face masks may no longer offer sufficient protection. It might be time to update your masking routine.

Here’s how cloth, surgical, and KN95 and N95 masks compare in terms of protection against the virus.

Effectiveness of the mask against Omicron

“The increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant may be due to several factors: a greater number of viruses generated by the infected person, fewer viruses needed to infect a susceptible individual, greater ease of airborne transmission, or a combination of the above,” Vincent Hsu, MD, executive director of infection control at AdventHealth, told Verywell. “Whatever the reasons, it increases the need for individuals to protect themselves with better masks.”

Wearing any mask is certainly better than none, but with the Omicron variant in circulation, it’s important to wear an effective one that can adequately protect you.

Cloth masks

Cloth masks are reusable face coverings that vary widely in material, fit, and quality, so it can be difficult to gauge their overall effectiveness. Some cloth masks can filter small infectious droplets and particles (less than 10 microns), while masks with multiple layers and higher thread counts can filter almost 50% of fine particles smaller than 1 micron.

If you opt for a cloth mask, it is important that it fits properly over your nose and mouth without any gaps at the sides of your face. Try holding it up to a bright light source to check if it has multiple layers of tightly woven fabric. If the cloth mask does not block light or has exhalation valves, it cannot provide protection against COVID-19.

According to a 2021 study published in PeerJ, repeated washing and drying practices can gradually reduce the filtering efficiency of cloth masks. The researchers found that the effectiveness of the cloth masks dropped by 20% after the fourth wash cycle.

“Many cloth masks don’t provide a meaningful seal or filter out virus particles,” Hsu said. Given the rise of the Omicron variant, it may be best to opt for a mask that can better protect you.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks, also called disposable or medical procedure masks, are made of non-woven fabrics with different layers. You are not supposed to wear more than one surgical mask at a time as this can mess up the fit on your face.

“Surgical masks have been shown to provide increased protection compared to cloth masks,” Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, head of quality and patient safety at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, told Verywell. Unlike cloth masks, stretching a surgical mask does not change its pore size.

A 2021 study published in Science found that surgical masks were more effective than cloth masks in reducing symptomatic COVID-19 infections at the community level, especially among people aged 60 and older.

KN95 or N95 masks

N95 masks are respirators capable of filtering up to 95% of particles in the air. These masks specifically meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards for air filtration. KN95 masks are respirators that also provide up to 95% air filtration, but they meet China-specific standards.

“Although they may look similar, N95 masks are a completely different device than a surgical or isolation mask,” Gonsenhauser said. “The material and construction, as well as the fit to the face, are different in almost every way. An N95 is considered a respirator, unlike a standard mask.

A typical surgical mask is more like a sneeze guard where droplets are trapped by the physical barrier, but very small particles can move around the open sides of the mask. N95 masks, when properly fitted, do not allow airflow around the sides of the mask, effectively filtering air through the mask and blocking much smaller particles, he explained.

A 2020 study published in Scientists progress evaluated 14 different face masks or mask alternatives to analyze respiratory droplet transmission during regular speech. Researchers found that less than 0.1% of droplets were transmitted through a fitted N95 mask while the wearer was talking.

“There is currently no recommendation to switch to N95 masks,” Gonsenhauser said. “However, by definition, an N95 mask provides better protection against aerosols and airborne pathogens to the wearer. But no evidence has been provided that shows this translates to better outcomes for the general population.

Keep in mind that you can only use one N95 or KN95 mask at a time and should not be combined with other masks.

“Given the higher infectivity of the Omicron variant, we need a more efficient filter because fewer virus particles can lead to infection than with previous variants,” Sten H. Vermund, MD, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told Verywell. “Highly vulnerable people, such as the unvaccinated or immunocompromised, may opt for N95.”

Which mask should you use?

Each type has its pros and cons depending on the situation, so it’s important to do a risk assessment when determining which mask to use, Hsu said.

“The need for additional protection with KN95 or N95 is evident in high-risk situations that are crowded or indoors, such as being on an airplane,” he added. “But these tighter-fitting masks can also cause discomfort when worn for long periods of time. In low-risk situations where there is greater distance between you and others, a surgical mask may provide adequate protection.

On social networks, there is a circulation graphic taken from a item from The Wall Street Journal which compares the estimated time needed to transmit an infectious dose of COVID-19. The data used in the chart was released in the spring of 2021, which means it does not yet take into account the Omicron variant. Experts said the chart might not be exactly accurate.

“This graph likely underestimates the value of cloth and surgical masks,” Vermund said. The table indicates that it only takes an infectious person wearing a surgical mask one hour to infect a person without COVID-19 who is also wearing a surgical mask. Still, Hsu pointed out that the idea behind it is correct: both people are more protected if they wear better quality masks.

“Now that there are more N95s or KN95s available to the public, and particularly during the Omicron push, I recommend them as a means of reducing the risk of infection as they are designed to provide a seal reducing air leakage and the mask filters out virus particles,” Hsu said.

How to improve the effectiveness of the mask

There are several steps you can take to improve the fit and filtration of your mask.

Wear double masks

Wearing a disposable mask under a fabric mask with multiple layers of fabric is a good way to increase your protection.

“If you wear a three-ply surgical mask and fit it snugly with a two-ply or three-ply cloth mask, you might get the same result. [protection] like with a KN95,” Vermund said. “Double masking adds multi-layered protection and likely helps with a tighter fit of the mask against the skin.”

Tie the earrings

Tie the ear loops of a surgical mask where they meet the mask and tuck in the extra material to improve its effectiveness.

The CDC did the following video guide to show how it’s done correctly.

Use mask adjusters

“Make sure your mask is comfortable and creates a tight seal,” Gonsenhauser said. “If not, consider using a mask fitter.”

Using mask adjusters on a surgical mask, such as a splint or a nylon stocking sleeve, can improve its effectiveness by ensuring it fits snugly to the contours of the face.

Cut facial hair

A careful fit around facial skin is important, so those with thick beards should consider trimming their facial hair to improve mask fit, Vermund said.

Beards can make it difficult to fit the mask. If you choose not to use a dual mask or use mask adjusters, you can trim your facial hair or shave it off completely.

Buy masks from trusted sources

According to the CDC, approximately 60% of KN95 respirators in the United States are counterfeit or fake. They do not meet NIOSH requirements, which means they cannot guarantee that the mask will provide the level of protection expected. The CDC recommends checking the List of NIOSH certified equipment to determine if your respirator is NIOSH approved.

“Retailers saw counterfeit or substandard products passing through a few months ago, but supply chains have been tightened now, so buying masks from known retail sources will ensure reasonable quality,” Vermund said.

Remember that wearing properly fitting masks is only part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. You should take other preventive measures to protect yourself and those around you.

“The most important precaution you can take is vaccination, followed by thinking about the environments you are exposed to, staying home when sick, and wearing properly fitted masks in any exposure environment or of increased risk of transmission,” Gonsenhauser said.

The information in this article is current as of the date indicated, which means that more recent information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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