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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated their mask-wearing advice, explaining that some masks are more effective than others when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
As the omicron variant continues to make its way around the world, the CDC has clarified that people should “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well.”
On the agency’s “Types of Masks and Respirators” page, they explained the importance of a well-fitting mask that is free of gaps around the nose and along the edges. They also made it clear that not all masks are created equal.
According to the CDC, respirator masks that are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) provide the highest level of protection from viral particles, including the virus that causes COVID. When it comes to the worst level of protection, the CDC points to loosely woven cloth masks.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks, and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the CDC states.
Dr. Leana Wen from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University agreed, telling The Sacramento Bee that in the light of omicron, “cloth masks are little more than facial decorations.”
N95 masks have been certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States, while KN95 masks are manufactured and approved in China. Both types of masks are “rated with 95 percent filtration efficiency,” according to USA Today. But, KN95 masks are more widely available.
“When it comes to how a mask performs, the ones that perform the best in public filter up to 95% of particles at 0.3 microns. And in that regard, you have to use an N95 mask but I think what’s more available for the public are KN95 masks.”
To ensure you’re getting authentic, high quality masks, we recommend shopping N95 masks or KN95 masks from Protectly.co, an independent firm that works directly with FDA-Registered & NIOSH-Certified domestic and international manufacturers.
KN95 and N95 masks were both designed for just a single use. But some experts say that you can get away with wearing these types of higher-quality masks a few times—if you take the proper steps.
Dr. Gastaldo says that storing your mask in a paper bag for 24-48 hours between uses is the right way to reuse them.
“The concern about wearing a mask in public, obviously, if you get particles on it, perhaps even the virus, but if you store it in a dry bag, you are essentially sanitizing again over a period of time,” Dr. Gastaldo explained.
Chief medical officer at VeryWell Health, Dr. Jessica Shepherd, said that the paper bag isn’t actually sanitizing the mask. But, she agreed that the method of storing your mask in a paper bag is a good one.
“It’s not the bag that’s doing the magic trick, it’s actually the process of keeping the mask away from decontaminating someone else or a surface, and also keeping a dry environment in order for the virus to not spread or stay on the mask,” Dr. Shepherd explained to WWL-TV.
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou—infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center—told USA Today that she recommends having multiple N95 masks and rotating them.
“For an N95, we’d recommend you switch (the mask) every day,” Dr. Assoumou said. “But, you can rotate them. If you have three masks, (for example), you could number them and switch them around.”
When it comes to KN95 masks, Dr. Jeremy Biggs from the University of Utah told WWL-TV to rotate them and let them sit for at least a day between uses. He also pointed out that KN95 masks can’t be washed.
According to the Navajo Department of Health in Arizona, you should store each of the masks in your home in a separate paper bag and mark who uses it. They advise disposing of these bags or cleaning them regularly. Another option is hanging your masks in a “designated storage area.”
Both N95 and KN95 masks are high quality, but you can’t use them forever. There will come a time when you’ll need to throw out your mask because its effectiveness does decline. Each time you take off an N95 mask and then put it back on, the straps are stretched and weakened.
Eventually, the mask will no longer be able to “generate enough force to create a tight seal with the face.” Because of this, the CDC recommends limiting the number of times a mask is removed and put back on to five. The agency also recommends washing your hands immediately after removing a mask or putting it on.
Besides stretched straps, experts say there are other things to look for that will indicate it’s time to throw away your N95 or K95 mask. These signs are “fraying, stretched out straps, or deterioration of the mask.”
The Navajo Department of Health says a mask that is “visibly dirty or damaged” should be tossed, as well as ones with “bodily fluids” and those that have been used in close contact with someone who has an infectious disease. They also recommend throwing out the respirator if you touch the inside of it.