As Covid-19 cases surge in the U.S. due to the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, experts are urging the public to upgrade their masks in addition to receiving booster shots and getting tested, but which masks offer the best protection against the virus?
Health officials warn against wearing a single reusable cloth mask to protect against the omicron variant, as tiny droplets can still make it through large pores of the fabric. Experts recommend wearing a tight-fitting mask with efficient filtration like an N95, KN95, or KF94 mask, which can filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The difference between the three masks comes down to which country or organization certified the mask—the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health certifies N95 masks, while KN95 masks are manufactured in China and meet Chinese standards and KF94 masks meet Korean standard requirements.
If N95, KN95, or KF94 masks are difficult to find, experts say double masking, specifically a surgical mask with a cloth mask on top, can provide better protection than just a single cloth mask.
N95, KN95, and KF94 masks can be reused, as long as they don’t have bodily fluids on them, broken straps, or a broken nose piece, according to the CDC.
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN. “We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask. You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.” The size of a particle of the novel coronavirus is about 0.12 micrometers. A study published in PeerJ found the pore size of 20 cloth masks ranged from 80 to 500 micrometers, underscoring health experts’ urging to wear a mask that has higher standards for filtration.