In light of the Omicron variant and at the urging of public-health experts, the CDC has updated its mask guidelines. The agency’s new standards stress that fabric masks are the least protective against COVID-19, whereas well-fitting N95, KN95, and KF94 masks — which use special nonwoven materials with an electric charge to block tiny aerosol particles — do a much better job of stopping the virus’s spread. Of course, any mask is better than no mask, but since this article was last updated in January 2021, we’ve talked to doctors, scientists, and public-health experts to help you find the best and most protective of the bunch. So whether you’re looking for a comfortable N95 you can wear on a plane, a child-size KF94, KN95 masks your teenager can wear to school, or advice on double masking, we can help.
Masks now come in a vast array of materials and constructions. More choice is, of course, a positive, but since many of us are new to mask-wearing, the sudden influx of options can also occasionally make it challenging to determine which is the best one (fashion aside) from your collection to wear in any given situation.
Whether you’re going to the grocery store or on the subway, both of the doctors we spoke to — Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, and Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America — agree that the best mask is one that is worn correctly, meaning tightly covering your entire mouth and nose without being suffocating. “You don’t want big gaps around the sides or the top or the bottom because the whole point is to keep small droplets coming out of your mouth or nose from reaching somebody else,” explains Dr. Segal, who points out that the public-health rationale behind wearing a mask is to protect others from your respiratory droplets, in the event that you’re presymptomatic or asymptomatic for the coronavirus.
In addition to fit, both doctors agree that the best masks are multilayered; Dr. Segal, who is studying the protective effects of different fabric masks on the wearer, says that multiple layers of thicker, tightly woven quilting cotton, or a layer of thinner cotton plus an inner layer of flannel, are the most effective at filtering out small virus-size particles.
Though we already tested 32 fabric face masks according to efficacy and overall fit, there are more out there (and counting). So, here, we’ve consulted with doctors and folks who’ve worn masks in a bunch of different situations — from pop-up restaurants to the dentist’s office — about the best masks for each of them.
On the subway
Both of the essential workers whom we spoke with — a foster-care case manager and grocery-store employee — mention that they prefer to wear surgical masks on the subway. Jason Weiner, a membership coordinator at the Park Slope Food Co-op who has been commuting about a half-hour on the subway to work throughout the pandemic, wears a surgical mask and face shield on the subway in order “to stay as protected as possible and keep myself and those I come in contact with safe.” Though neither doctor we spoke to “routinely recommends” wearing N95 respirator masks, they don’t discourage the use of medical-grade masks in riskier nonmedical environments, including a crowded subway where not everyone is masked. “If you’re going to have to be in a high-risk environment, something like the subway, with lots of other people in a relatively closely confined area, perhaps for a prolonged period of time, then mask effectiveness might really play a difference in protecting you,” explains Dr. Segal, who “couldn’t argue” with someone wearing an N95 in such a situation but encourages folks not to divert supplies away from health-care providers when stocks are low. Dr. Glatt agrees that it’s “not wrong” to wear an N95 in that kind of situation but still “wouldn’t recommend it routinely.”
On an airplane
Although the duration of airplane travel is usually longer than a trip on the subway, both the doctors we spoke to say that flights aren’t necessarily riskier — depending on the social-distancing measures onboard — because airplanes are usually better aerated, and there are more regulations in place for ensuring that everyone onboard is masked. “The air is filtered reasonably frequently on the plane; you’re not facing other people directly; and everybody’s wearing a mask. So I have not heard about major outbreaks that have been traced back to airplanes,” says Dr. Segal, adding that the mask you wear on an airplane should be especially comfortable, since you’ll likely be wearing it for a long duration of time. When Mia Leimkuhler, Strategist newsletter editor, flew from Philadelphia to Montreal a few weeks ago, she wore a Baggu fabric mask for the entire four hours of traveling (door to Uber to plane to home), save for a sip of water in the airport. “The cotton is sturdy but totally breathable and really comfortable, and the tying apparatus meant I was less likely to futz with the mask,” she says, adding that the lack of ear loops also meant she could wear her over-ear headphones on the plane.
As schools across the country grapple with reopening, classrooms pose a risk for teachers this fall. In addition to the challenge of getting children to wear a face mask in the first place, teachers “may be in close proximity with students for a prolonged period of time, which increases the risk for everybody,” explains Dr. Segal, who differentiates this level of risk from that of crossing paths with somebody in an indoor grocery store for a few seconds. Everyone in the New York City public-school system will be required to wear a mask at school this year, and Connay Bratton, a special-education music teacher in Queens, will also be expected to wear more full-body protective equipment, like a face shield, when in close contact with her students — some of whom need help going to the bathroom or have behaviors that aren’t conducive to social distancing. Dr. Glatt agrees that for teachers who are in close contact with students (especially if they’re unmasked), wearing “goggles or a face shield to cover your eyes, in addition to a mask, is reasonable.” Although Bratton hopes that the state or city provides her with this gear, she doesn’t know if they’ll be able to because of budget cuts, in which case she’s planning to wear the 100% Human Everlane mask as well. “I like how it fits my entire mouth and chin area and doesn’t slip,” she says, adding that her Vegamour mask (which comes with the purchase of the brand’s hand sanitizer) has adjustable ear strings and also fits well.
At the office
Anna Kalm, an employment-development associate at the reentry-services organization Getting Out and Staying Out, returned to her office in June and has been wearing fabric masks from Sisters PPE (emblazoned with her organization’s logo) ever since. “They’re soft but still breathable,” she says, adding that the multilayered masks are good for an air-conditioned workplace because they are a bit “warmer” than typical cotton T-shirt material. The doctors we spoke to say that wearing a well-fitting fabric mask in most workplaces should be sufficient, assuming there’s some degree of air circulation as well as consistent mask-wearing and social-distancing measures in place.
At the grocery store
Although trips to the grocery store have become more stressful during the coronavirus, the doctors we spoke to agree that, barring crowds of unmasked shoppers, a fabric mask is sufficient protective gear. During the pandemic, Weiner was on the committee responsible for outfitting Park Slope Food Co-op employees with protective gear, and he helped secure Hanes cotton masks for all full-time and temporary staff, including Anya Shiferson. “They’re quite snug on the face but breathable,” says Shiferson, who is a temporary staff member during the pandemic. “I thought it looked boring, so I dyed it with beets and turmeric,” she adds. Weiner himself likes the fabric masks made by a Co-op member, or those from Diop, a Black-owned brand making masks inspired by mud cloth, which we’ve said “fit tightly, without being constricting, and passed the light test.”
At the hairdresser
Although you might be in closer proximity to your hairdresser than anyone in a grocery store, most hair salons are less densely occupied right now, since cities have set standards for reopening. At Sabine’s Hallway Natural Hair Salon — where there are only three people in the salon at a time — owner Sabine Bellevue keeps disposable masks on hand for her clients because she doesn’t want to dirty their masks during a coloring treatment. During the day, Bellevue herself often wears a fabric mask emblazoned with her salon’s logo from a promotional company, which has a minimum order quantity of 48 masks ($3.99 a piece). “It’s comfortable around the ear, and our days are maybe ten or 12 hours long, so having on a mask that long, you really want it to be comfortable,” she says, adding that she’s only able to see four clients per day, since each appointment takes time and she sanitizes for a half-hour in between. When Dr. Segal got his haircut recently, he wore a “high-quality fabric mask” that was donated by his local sewing community, adding, “I practice what I preach and try to save medical masks for the medical areas.”