Since last spring, we’ve all become face-mask connoisseurs, with opinions on adjustable nose bridges, elastic ear loops versus string ties, and insertable filters. Even though millions of Americans (and counting) have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, masks are even more important now, nearly a year after the country’s first lockdown and stay-at-home orders. This is due to rapidly spreading variants of the virus that are more contagious than the original. Now, experts (including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC) recommend double-masking to prevent spreading the virus when you’re in close proximity to others.
While we’ve written a lot about masks before on the Strategist (including our personal favorites, the best options for kids, and the best masks for running outdoors), we were curious about the face masks that health-care professionals wear when they’re off the clock, especially in light of the new recommendations. Some doctors and nurses we spoke with say they’ll wear N95 masks outside of clinical settings, but because the current guidance for the public is to stick with cloth masks and save those for the professionals who need them, we’ve included only fabric and nonmedical disposable options below.
When it comes to double-masking, the doctors we spoke with recommended layering a disposable surgical mask under a fabric mask for the most protection. Samuel Lin, a plastic surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, tells us he wears paper masks when out shopping. This disposable mask is made from three layers of nonwoven material and is approved by the FDA for emergency use during the pandemic. As for what to wear on top, Shawn Nasseri, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, and his wife and medical partner, anesthesiologist Bita Nasseri, suggest a mask with an outer protective barrier layer, two additional layers of protection, and a filter pocket.
Also authorized by the FDA for emergency use, these KN95 masks (considered the Chinese-made equivalent to N95 masks) would also work as a first layer under a fabric mask. “For conditions where there is little to no airflow, like an elevator or enclosed room, having a second mask might be a good idea,” says Lin.
Another disposable mask that can be used under a fabric mask (or on its own if you’re not in a crowded area) is this dust mask recommended by internist Jacob Teitelbaum, author of From Fatigued to Fantastic. “It leaves more room for my nose — which is somewhat prominent — and is much more comfortable,” he says.
While dermatologist Marina Peredo uses N95 masks in the office, she doesn’t like how they irritate her skin, so she switches to a HydraFacial mask when she’s off duty. “I love that it has a metal piece on the nose to tighten the mask for more protection,” she says. Peredo adds that the copper fibers in the mask help with moisture control to keep the skin cool, and they also have antibacterial properties.
Cosmetic dentist Marc Lowenberg says this mask from Israeli brand Sonovia is his “new go-to.” These masks are coated with zinc oxide, which is gentle on the skin and may help prevent mask-related breakouts.
Because her wardrobe consists of “many vibrant colors,” dermatologist Dendy Engelman says she gravitates toward these bright masks from LoveShackFancy. In light of the new recommendations for double-masking, she’ll often layer these over an N95 mask to both up her protection level and “make it more fashionable.” As Engelman says, “They have beautiful designs and soft fabrics, plus I’m protected with my N95 underneath.
A best seller among Strategist readers, these Buck Mason masks (made from three layers of the brand’s thick cotton T-shirt material) are also a favorite of licensed medical pedicurist Marcela Correa, founder of Medi Pedi NYC. While she recommends cotton in general because it’s “breathable, molds well to any shape of the face, and is machine washable,” she particularly likes that the Buck Mason masks “have been treated with an antimicrobial layer, giving you that extra bit of protection.” Underneath her Buck Mason mask, Correa wears a disposable surgical mask, like this one. She says, “It’s thin enough that it doesn’t feel constricting when worn underneath the cloth mask.” She likes that they’re affordable since she’ll often swap out her disposable mask a few times during the day “to avoid breakouts and maintain a clean environment.”
San Diego–based facial plastic surgeon Amir Karam says he’s tried lots of cloth masks but these three-ply cotton ones are his favorite. He tells us that cotton has “been shown to be the most protective material,” and “it’s light and breathable even if you use styles that include two or three layers.” He says these masks “cover a fair amount of facial landscape,” which maximizes protection, and are “less likely to require adjusting.”
You’ll find handmade masks on Etsy with pretty much any design available, but there are some key descriptions to look for to make sure you’re getting one that’s stylish and protective. Dr. Naveen Gupta makes her own face masks but says if you’re shopping on Etsy to look for ones with at least three layers of tightly woven cotton. This style, for example, comes in a variety of patterns and is dentist Lana Rozenberg’s pick for an out-of-office mask. “As the name suggests, the comfortable design has a nose wire and filter pocket along with four layers of cotton protection and adjustable ear loops,” she says.
These Gap masks are a close dupe to disposable surgical masks, according to cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green. “They mimic the medical surgical face mask in design with three layers of fabric,” she says. “They are breathable and washable too, which is why I like them.”
These affordable masks are Green’s top picks for running or other exercise. “They’re made from breathable, tightly woven cotton that wicks moisture from your face to the outer layer of the mask,” she explains. Having three layers also provides plenty of protection from droplets. According to Hanes, each mask should be replaced after 20 washes, which makes them less durable than some other options, but at $2 per mask, it’s still an affordable option to save for workouts.
At the Detox of South Florida rehabilitation center, where gastroenterologist and addiction specialist Vikram Tarugu is both CEO and a clinician, employees are required to wear N95 respirator masks. However, when they’re off duty, Tarugu says most of the staff relies on Vistaprint masks. He likes that the mask has a pocket for a filter and that Vistaprint sells replacement filters designed specifically for their masks. Tarugu says the mask and filter “do a great job at blocking airborne contaminants.” Of the dozens of styles Strategist writer Liza Corsillo tested out to put together her seriously thorough guide to fabric face masks, the four-layer Vistaprint mask was also one of her favorites. Plus, it’s a Strategist-reader best seller.