This page is reviewed regularly. Last updated on February 2, 2022.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fabric masks were recommended for the public. Surgical and N95 masks were prioritized for first responders and healthcare settings. The data showed fabric masks were effective in reducing transmission of the earliest strains of the virus. Now, it’s time to retire your fabric masks.
Over time, the COVID-19 virus has evolved, and the recent variant called Omicron is much more contagious. Omicron spreads from person to person with ease, efficiency and speed. As the virus has changed, public health officials have updated their mask recommendations. Wear the most protective mask you can in most situations, such as a disposable procedure mask (also called a surgical mask), N95 or KN95 respirator.1
Who needs to wear a mask?
If you’re not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors in public.2 Even if you’re fully vaccinated, when transmission is substantial or high in your area, wear a mask indoors. If you’re taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19, you should wear a mask. Anyone who is at increased risk of illness or who interacts with large numbers of people should also wear a mask.2 A mask is also required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation
Why do I need to wear a mask?
Wearing a mask can help prevent you from getting sick or spreading COVID-19 to others. Respiratory droplets escape from our mouths and noses when we breathe, talk, cough and sneeze. These droplets can carry virus particles and be inhaled by the people around us. Masks can significantly reduce the number of particles that pass between individuals.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 eases the burden on healthcare providers and hospitals. Keeping the virus in check also limits disruptions to the economy and schooling. Additional cases give the virus more chances to mutate into potentially more harmful strains.
What type of mask should I wear?
For the best protection, wear a procedure mask, N95 or KN95 that fits you well.1
The type of mask you may be most familiar with is a procedure mask, also called a surgical mask. They are pleated rectangles of two or three layers of non-woven fabric that allows air to pass through, but traps many viral particles. A procedure mask helps catch your respiratory droplets and protect those around you. If your mask fits closely without gaps, it can also help protect you from virus particles in the air you breathe.
Respirators like N95 or KN95s work in both directions to catch 95% of particles. They take the shape of a dome over your mouth and nose. They’re designed to filter out virus particles from the air you breathe in. They also catch the droplets you breathe out. A KN95 mask meets China’s standards while an N95 mask meets US standards.
Check the fit.
Pinch the flexible nose band to fit the mask or respirator more closely to your face. A mask brace can hold a procedure mask in place and close any gaps. Wearing a fabric mask over a procedure mask can also help you get a closer fit. Try different brands and types of masks to find one that fits well and feels comfortable to you.
What about masks for children?
Children over two years of age should wear masks in indoor public places. Choose a size that fits over their mouth and nose without blocking their vision. Knotting the ear loops of a procedure mask is a simple way to adjust the fit. Tuck in any excess material under the edges.
How do I know my N95 or KN95 is real and not counterfeit?
Can I reuse my mask or respirator?
Reusing disposable procedure masks is not recommended. Replace your mask if it becomes wet or soiled. To help keep your hands clean, take the mask off by holding the edges or the straps. Fold it together before putting it in the trash. Do not recycle disposable masks.
N95 or KN95 masks should also be replaced when wet or dirty. A KN95 or N95 mask cannot be washed with soap and water. If you use a respirator for a short period of time, you can store it in a paper bag to keep it clean and let any moisture dry out. Before wearing it again, make sure the mask still forms a good seal to your face.
Bring spare masks with you in case you need to replace yours while you’re away from home.
What if wearing a mask irritates my skin?
For some people, wearing a mask can cause acne or sore or itchy skin. The good news is that small adjustments to your skincare routine can make a big difference. The Babylon Health Team has some helpful tips for keeping your skin healthy and comfortable.
What else can I do to protect myself and others?
Getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 is your best defense. Other strategies include avoiding crowds, social distancing and frequent hand-washing. If you’re feeling sick, stay home. To learn more about masks and respirators and how to wear them, visit the CDC’s webpage.
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- Types of Masks and Respirators. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/types-of-masks.html Updated Jan 28, 2022.
- When to Wear a Mask. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html, Updated Jan 21, 2022.