With COVID case counts still high and potentially more-contagious variants spreading, it’s time to up your mask game. Doubling up is one solution, but N95s and other high-quality masks still provide the best filtration.
Cloth masks were originally recommended because surgical masks and respirators were in short supply. A cloth mask is still better than nothing, but it just isn’t as effective as higher-quality masks. The ranking goes something like this, in order of effectiveness, with the best options at the top:
As we’ve explained, respirators and surgical masks have a number of advantages over cloth masks. They fit more snugly, the holes in the material are smaller, and the material has an electrostatic charge that helps to prevent you from breathing in any particles that make it through the mesh.
Any mask is better than none, so you may want to keep those old cloth masks around as a backup option (to ideally layer over a surgical mask) when a better quality mask isn’t available. Cloth and surgical masks are also reasonable options for kids, since NIOSH-approved respirators don’t come in children’s sizes and the best mask for a kid is whatever you can get them to actually wear. With that in mind, here are some of your options if you’re looking for a high-quality mask.
If you can find N95s, that’s great, but beware that counterfeit ones are out there. A legit N95 will have a NIOSH logo and an approval number, which you can double check on the NIOSH website. We’d also recommend looking over the CDC’s tips on spotting fakes. Real N95s will never have ear loops, decorations, or designations about being approved for children.
KN95 masks are approved in China and are similar to N95s, but it has sometimes been tough to find legitimate ones. A 2020 study from the ECRI institute found that 70% of the masks they tested that were labeled KN95 didn’t meet the standard.
The FDA assembled a list of masks that were authorized for healthcare workers to use during the pandemic, including a few specific brands of KN95s. Those authorizations have since been revoked for healthcare workers, but it’s still fine to wear them for other purposes.
KF94 is a South Korean designation for a mask very similar to an N95. They are intended for use by the general public, and they’re often easier to find and cheaper than N95s.
The European equivalent of an N95 is the FFP2. In Germany, authorities now require these in some situations, like when riding on public transit.
Elastomeric masks are perhaps better known from home improvement projects than healthcare. They have a rubbery part that fits your face and replaceable filters that are often in the shape of discs.
The CDC allows them for healthcare workers, finding that they work well against the coronavirus. The filters aren’t designed to get wet, but as long as you keep them dry and clean, you can keep reusing the mask without having to throw anything away.
This post was originally published in January 2021 and was updated on Jan. 11, 2022 to include more recent recommendations.