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What You Should Know About Face Masks

Jan 19, 2022
By Spencer Blackman, MD

Updated January 19, 2022.

By now, it is well known that wearing masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But while it may seem like you can find masks at any store these days, not all masks offer the same protection. If changing public health guidance has left you confused about which type of mask is right for you, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about face masks and COVID-19:

Who needs to wear a mask?

Mask guidance varies depending on your vaccination status, local regulations, and local case rates. If you have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the CDC previously stated that you no longer need to wear a mask or socially distance in most indoor and outdoor settings. However, with the increased transmissibility and higher community spread associated with the omicron variant, the CDC now recommends people should wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. If you are immunocompromised, are at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19, or live with someone who is immunocompromised, at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated, you may choose to wear a mask regardless of local transmission levels. If you are vaccinated and have been exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, wear a mask when indoors around others for 10 days following your exposure, and if possible, be tested five days after the exposure.

Those two years of age and older who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, should continue to wear a face mask in all public settings and when around a mix of fully vaccinated and vaccinated people. If you haven’t been fully vaccinated, you can, however, go without a mask while exercising outdoors with members of your household and while attending small, outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people from other households. Masks are also recommended inside your home if you live or care for someone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive.

Regardless of your vaccination status, everyone should continue to wear masks in healthcare settings, on trains, buses, planes, or other modes of public transportation, in transportation hubs like airports and bus stations, and in prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. This is to slow the spread of the virus and prevent those who have the virus and don’t know it from transmitting it to others. Everyone should also continue to abide by state, local, and tribal mask and social distancing regulations, as well as rules for local businesses and workplaces.

What type of mask should I wear?

There are four common types of masks for the prevention of COVID-19: cloth masks, disposable medical procedure masks (also known as surgical or “loop” masks), KN95 respirators, and N95 respirators. While all masks and respirators offer some level of protection against COVID-19, and any mask is better than no mask, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection when worn correctly. This is because respirators filter the air and fit closely on the face to filter out particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to the CDC, loosely woven cloth face masks provide the least protection. While layered finely woven cloth face masks may be more effective, disposable medical procedure masks and KN95 respirators offer even more protection when well-fitted. KN95 masks are designed to meet international standards though and can vary in terms of filtration based on the standard they are designed to meet. NIOSH approved N95 respirators, which are evaluated against a U.S. quality standard, offer the highest level of protection against COVID-19, filtering out 95% of particles when properly fitted.

The CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective masks that fits well and you will wear consistently. Whether you choose to wear a mask or respirator, it’s important that it fits snugly around the face without any gaps, covering your nose and mouth, and that it’s comfortable enough to keep on as long as you need to. Your mask or respirator will be less effective if it’s loose or if you need to take it off frequently.

How can I improve the fit of my mask or respirator?

When evaluating masks and respirators, consider these guidelines:

  • Choose a mask that fits snugly against your nose, mouth and chin. Masks with nose wires are optimal. Mask “fitters” or “braces” can be used to help the mask fit more snuggly as well.
  • Check for gaps by cupping your hands around the outside edges of the mask. Make sure no air is flowing from the area near your eyes or from the sides of the mask. Respirators should form a seal around the face.
  • Use cloth masks with multiple layers of fabric or wear a cloth mask over a disposable, medical procedure mask. Some cloth masks come with pockets for insertable filters and we think this a great approach.
  • Use the “knot and tuck” method for medical procedure masks.
  • Do not combine two disposable masks
  • Do not combine an N95 or KN95 mask with another mask
  • Do not wear a mask or respirator if it is wet or dirty or if it is hard to breathe while wearing it.
  • Do not wear masks or respirators with exhalation valves, vents, or other openings

It is important to remember that none of these options offer 100% protection. While wearing a mask or face covering, you should continue to practice social distancing and follow recommended preventative measures like vaccination and staying home when sick to protect yourself and others.

Be sure to wash cloth masks routinely depending on the frequency of use, using a washing machine if possible. If it’s disposable, throw it away after use. With respirators, be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions, which should include information on how to store, wash, and store your respirator. Most respirators are disposable and should be discarded when they are dirty, damaged, or difficult to breathe through. It’s also important to be mindful when removing your mask or respirator, to not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. You should wash your hands immediately after touching it. For more information on which masks you should use, please see the CDC website.

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Spencer Blackman, MD, One Medical Provider

Spencer practices relationship-centered primary care, blending a traditional sensibility with up-to-date clinical knowledge and a strong focus on disease prevention. He enjoys getting to know his patients well, educating and empowering them to participate in health care decisions. Spencer completed his residency training at UCSF and practiced primary care, urgent care, sports medicine and adolescent medicine throughout the Bay Area before joining One Medical Group. He is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Spencer is a One Medical Group provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.