Dec. 29, 2021 — Are you still wearing a cloth face mask?
For background: N95 respirators are tightly fitting masks that cover your mouth and nose and help prevent contact with droplets and tiny particles in the air from people talking, coughing, sneezing, and spreading in other ways. Usually worn by health care workers and first responders, these masks can filter up to 95% of air droplets and particles, according to the CDC.
But recommendations to opt for N95 and 3-ply surgical masks over cloth masks are nothing new, says Leana Wen, MD, an emergency doctor and public health professor at George Washington University.
In fact, public health experts have been urging stronger mask protection for months.
“It’s not just with Omicron that we need better masks, it was with Delta, it was with Alpha before that,” Wen says. “We have known for many months that COVID-19 is airborne, and therefore, a simple cloth mask is not going to cut it.”
Here’s what to know about these protective masks.
Omicron is spreading much faster than previous COVID-19 variants. As it’s up to three times as likely to spread as the Delta variant, mask-wearing is paramount right now, says Anita Gupta, DO, an adjunct assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine and pain medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The quality of a mask also matters a lot, says Wen.
“Double masking, including a well-fitting cloth mask on top of a surgical mask, adds additional protection,” she says.
“Ideally, though, people should be wearing an N95, KN95, or KF94 when in indoor settings around other people with unknown vaccination status.”
If wearing an N95 mask causes extreme discomfort, wear it in high-risk settings where there are lots of people, like crowded restaurants and busy commuter trains, says Wen.
“If you’re in a grocery store, there’s plenty of space and ventilation. You may not need an N95,” she says. “I recommend that people obtain different masks and practice with them in low-risk settings before they go out in public in a high-risk setting.”
But people should wear a 3-ply surgical mask at the very least.
Three-Ply Surgical and N95 Mask Qualities
With 3-ply surgical masks, the fit of the mask is often more of an issue than its comfort, Wen says.
But there are ways to adjust these masks, especially for those who have smaller heads.
“You can put a rubber band around the ear loops and make them a bit tighter,” says Wen. “Some people have found that using pins in their hair, that’s another way of keeping the loops in place.”
Another important tip on 3-ply surgical masks and N95s: These masks are reusable.
But how many times you should use them varies, Wen says.
“As an example, if you are sweating a lot, and the mask is now really damp,” says Wen. “Or putting it in your purse or backpack, and now it’s misshapen, and you cannot get it back to fit on your face, then it’s time to throw it away.”
For some, cloth masks became somewhat of a statement, with people sporting logos of their favorite NFL team, or maybe even a fun animal print.
But you should always keep in mind the purpose of wearing a mask, Wen stresses.
“Mask wearing is very functional and is about reducing your likelihood of contracting COVID,” she says. “People should also use whatever methods inspire them, too, but for me, it’s purely a functional exercise.”
Mask wearing is not always enjoyable, but it remains critical in keeping people safe from COVID-19, especially the elderly and other high-risk people, Gupta says.
“There is lots of research and experts working hard to stop COVID-19,” she says. “It is important for all of us to remember that wearing a mask alone doesn’t make us safe.”
“We all need to keep washing our hands frequently and maintaining a distance from people, as well.”