Choosing the right mask for you
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued guidelines recommending higher-quality masks to provide better protection. But how do you know which mask is the right one for you?
Dan Diekema, MD, MS, hospital epidemiologist for University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, has one key recommendation: wear a medical-grade mask.
“While a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 like omicron circulates in our community, this is a time when you’ll want to use a medical-grade mask,” he says.
What is a medical-grade mask?
A medical-grade mask (sometimes called a surgical mask) is a disposable mask, often found in blue and yellow colors.
They’re meant to protect the mask wearer from respiratory droplets and sprays that may contain germs. They are also meant to prevent your respiratory aerosols and droplets from contacting others. So, you are wearing your mask both to protect yourself and to protect those around you.
What makes a mask medical grade?
A medical-grade mask must meet certain criteria for filtration efficacy in the laboratory, which should translate into filtration effectiveness when it's worn in the real world.
Knowing whether a commercially sold mask is medical-grade can be tricky. Many masks that have the words “not medical” printed on them are still considered medical-grade and provide good protection.
“We also consider unfitted N95s and KN95s to be equivalent to a medical-grade mask because they fit snugly against the face, allowing for fewer particles to break through,” Diekema says. “The most important thing is the fit to the face to protect the person wearing the mask as well as others.”
While medical-grade masks will provide the best protection during this COVID-19 surge, cloth masks are still an option, although Diekema warns they are not quite as effective.
“What I really look for is multiple layers, and then that it fits well and snug to your face,” Diekema says. “Any mask that has multiple layers and fits snuggly on your face is going to be better than many of the cloth masks that have only one layer.”
Tips for choosing a mask
There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a mask:
- Good medical-grade masks should have multiple layers of non-woven material.
- There should be a nose wire at the top of the mask to fit the mask better around your nose.
- Disposable medical-grade masks should be changed daily. If the mask becomes wet or soiled, you should change it out and wear a new one.
- If you do wear a cloth mask, be sure there are multiple layers of fabric and no exhalation valves or holes.
- It’s also recommended to wear a medical-grade mask under a cloth mask for better protection.
Knowing the correct way to wear your mask is also important. Be sure the mask fits snugly on your face and covers your nose, mouth, and chin while still allowing you to breathe comfortably
Although choosing a medical-grade mask and wearing it correctly is important, Diekema stresses that the best way to protect yourself is to pair mask wearing with other safety measures such as getting vaccinated and boosted, avoiding large gatherings, and keeping your distance from others.