What to Know About COVID Masks

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 16, 2024
15 min read

Face masks prevent disease droplets you cough, sneeze, or breathe from infecting others. They also help keep people who have COVID-19 or other illnesses from infecting you.

As long as very contagious variants of COVID such as Omicron keep evolving, masks remain an important way to stay safer in certain situations. Depending on the spread of COVID, officials will continue to update mask guidance as needed. So make sure you're up to date on which masks offer you the most protection and when it's a good idea to wear them.

Respiratory illnesses such as COVID, the flu, or colds vary in how easily they spread and the ways they do so. You can catch respiratory illnesses by touching someone directly, touching objects such as doorknobs where germs have been left behind, or coming into contact with large or small airborne particles from a sneeze or a cough, for example.

Masks help reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses by protecting you from airborne droplets and protecting others if you are ill.

Here's everything you need to know, including the different types of face masks available and what to look for when you buy them.

Face masks won't totally block COVID, but some, like the N95 mask, come very close. A mask gives an added layer of protection to you and the people around you.

Certain types of masks offer more protection than others. Here's a closer look at each type:

Surgical mask

Also called a disposable mask, surgical masks are often blue with white borders. These masks shield against the large droplets that come from a sick person's cough or sneeze, but they're too loose to protect against all germs. And they can't block the tiniest particles that may carry COVID.

If you wear a disposable mask, choose one that has several layers of non-woven material. Choose a size that fits properly over your nose and mouth and comes with a nose wire. Don't wear one that has gaps around the sides of your face or nose.

You can boost your protection by fitting a cloth mask over a surgical one. You can also knot the ear loops of a surgical mask and then tuck in and flatten the extra material close to your face to help it fit better.

If your mask is wet or dirty, replace it with a new one.

N95 mask

COVID N95 respirator masks fit tightly around your face. They filter out 95% or more of the smallest particles in the air. But they have to fit just right in order to work.

It's fine to buy a basic, disposable N95 mask when it's available. Choose one that's high quality and says “NIOSH-Approved” on the label.

Respirator masks, or “respirators,” like the N95 give the highest level of protection against the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

Cloth mask

Cloth masks are washable and reusable. They're not the best option, but they do give you protection and are better than wearing no mask. The best cloth masks have multiple layers of breathable fabric and fit snugly over your nose and mouth. It's a good idea to buy ones that come with a nose wire and are made with fabric that can block light.

KN95 mask

KN95 masks are supposed to meet international standards, but their quality varies greatly because there's no reputable certification system for them. They're similar to N95s but are not NIOSH-approved. They often don't provide the same protection as N95s. Disregard any claims of NIOSH certification for KN95s because neither the CDC nor NIOSH certifies KN95 masks.

It's important to wear a face mask in several situations.

If you have symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, or fever, and if you test positive for COVID or were recently exposed to someone with the virus, wear a mask in indoor public places even if you're fully vaccinated. Do this unless your doctor tells you otherwise. In general, you don't need to wear a mask outside, where it's harder for COVID to spread. But if COVID cases are high in your area, consider wearing one in crowded outdoor places and for outdoor get-togethers that involve close contact with people who aren't fully vaccinated.

According to the CDC’s latest guidance, the need for face masks at any given time depends on the level of the coronavirus in your community. (No matter where you live, the CDC recommends that you stay up to date with your COVID vaccines and get tested if you have symptoms.)

To help you make an informed choice about masking, the agency has designed a mapping tool that provides the latest COVID data in your area. The map shows COVID data by county. It’s color-coded as green, yellow, or red, for low, medium, and high levels of virus spread, respectively. The level is based on the number of hospital beds in use, hospital admissions, and the total number of new cases in an area.

Green. This indicates low community spread. Face masks are optional unless you're sick or have been exposed to COVID.

Yellow. This means there's a medium rate of infection. If you have a compromised immune system or are otherwise at high risk to get seriously ill from COVID, ask your doctor whether you should wear a mask.

Red. This color indicates high community spread of COVID. The CDC recommends wearing a well-fitted mask if you’re:

  • Indoors in public, regardless of your vaccination status or risk of infection.
  • At high risk of becoming seriously ill.

In communities with low or medium COVID levels, the CDC no longer recommends that all children wear masks inside schools. Masks also aren't required for those riding in buses or vans operated by public or private schools or child care centers.

But they’re still recommended for many forms of public transportation such as inside airplanes, trains, and buses.

Anyone who is sick and around other people or animals (even at home) should wear a face mask. Caregivers should use them when cleaning and disinfecting a sick person's bedroom or bathroom. If you need to call 911, put on a mask before medical help arrives.

Who shouldn’t wear COVID masks?

The vast majority of people can wear masks with no trouble. But the CDC guidelines say certain people can go without them. They include:

  • Children under 2
  • People who have trouble breathing
  • Someone who's unconscious
  • Someone who can't move or take off a mask without help

Are masks effective against coronavirus disease?

You might be wondering, “If I wear a mask around someone with COVID will I get it?” Masks do a better job of protecting you when everyone around you in a room is wearing them. Even though it's not ideal to be the only person who's masked up indoors in a public place, it still offers more protection than going maskless.

The right face covering can help you breathe in fewer infectious droplets that get released when someone with COVID sneezes, coughs, talks, or breathes. The better your mask fits and the more filtration it provides, the more protection you get, experts say.

In one lab study, researchers tested different types of masks on a mannequin they exposed to the virus. An N95 mask shielded the mannequin by far the most. And a cotton mask, although far less protective, was better than no mask at all, the researchers found.

Ear loops vs. ties. Because you can adjust it, a mask that ties behind your head will usually fit your face better than one that loops around your ears. But ties can get tangled up in the wash, and some people prefer the fit of ear loops. They're also better for places such as hair salons and barber shops.

Filter vs. no filter. Having multiple layers of fabric offers more surfaces for virus particles to stick instead of going out into the air. A filter helps in this process. But too many layers might make it hard to breathe. Use the mask that's most comfortable so you're more likely to keep wearing it. Be sure to check that the filter material doesn't have something dangerous such as fiberglass in it.

If you're buying or wearing a “homemade” face mask, check that it uses designs or sewing instructions from experts such as the CDC or your local hospital. Choose a mask with more than one layer of fabric. Make sure it's not too hard to breathe through the material.

Fit is just as important as airflow. Look for a mask that fits your face well and is comfortable enough that you'll be willing to use it. There shouldn't be any gaps around your nose, mouth, and chin.

Be sure you can take off the mask using only the ties or ear loops. You should be able to wash and dry your mask without damaging it or changing its shape.

For children who are too young to get the vaccine and those with special health care needs, wearing a mask in certain settings can still help protect them or family members from COVID infection.

For kids, a face mask that works well should:

  • Be well-fitting and cover your child’s mouth and nose
  • Sit snugly under the chin with no gaps on the sides
  • Not block vision⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠
  • Be comfortable

Are there any benefits to wearing masks in school?

Yes. According to experts, children and adolescents can spread SARS-CoV-2 virus to others, including parents, grandparents, and teachers, even if they don’t have symptoms or have a mild reaction. Wearing a well-fitting face mask that covers both your nose and mouth indoors can reduce the COVID infection rate to less than 1% if everyone is wearing a mask.

For parents or adults who are caregivers to the elderly or immunocompromised, research shows that masking in children is the best and safest way to send your child to school. This also helps cut down infection rates among children, school staff, and family members at home.

Can masks make it harder to breathe in oxygen?

No. While some parents are concerned that wearing masks for long hours could cause low blood oxygen levels, there’s no need to worry. Masks are made from materials that are designed to allow a healthy flow of oxygen as your child breathes.

It doesn’t affect their ability to focus either. In fact, almost all children aged 2 and above, even those with certain medical conditions, can safely wear masks in school or day care for long periods.

Are there health risks for children wearing masks?

No. Children can safely wear masks all day. There’s a myth that wearing masks for long hours could mean breathing in too much carbon dioxide (CO2), which could lead to hypercapnia -- CO2 poisoning. But that’s not true. Evidence shows that CO2 molecules are small enough to pass through the pores in your mask, so it’s not possible for children to get CO2 poisoning by wearing masks at school.

Can masks interfere with children’s lung development?

No. Wearing a mask for long periods at school won’t affect your growing child’s lung development. In fact, the mask allows oxygen to properly flow in and around it while protecting your child from coming in contact with spit, coughs, sneezes, or other airborne particles that could carry the COVID virus. Preventing or limiting the spread of COVID with masks is one way to make sure your child’s lungs stay healthy.

Do masks interfere with the development of a healthy immune system?

Not at all. Wearing masks won’t compromise your child’s immunity or increase their risk of catching COVID or other infections. In fact, because face masks cover your nose and mouth, they stop your child from constantly touching their face.

It cuts down on several infections (including COVID) that are spread through touch, droplets from bodily fluids, or the air. Face masks protect your child’s overall health and immunity.

Can face masks delay speech and language skills?

No. As children learn to communicate by watching the faces, mouths, and expressions of the people closest to them, it’s understandable to wonder if face masks affect their motor skills. But there’s no evidence to show that face masks negatively impact speech and language learning skills in children.

In fact, when wearing masks, experts note that children learn to pay close attention to gestures, changes in tone of voice, emotions through eye movement, and words to develop the same speech and language skills.

Is there psychological damage to kids from wearing masks?

No. According to experts, there’s no evidence that face masks harm your child’s mental and psychological well-being. Moreover, no studies show that wearing face masks can lead to depression or anxiety among kids. For children who choose to continue to wear a mask in school, teachers and school leaders should be supportive of this decision and make certain that they don’t become the target of bullying.

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure the mask has no holes. Here are some dos and don'ts:

  • Do secure the mask with ties behind your head. If it has loops, pull them behind your ears. Fit the mask around your nose and mouth, and under your chin. There should be no space between your face and the mask. Pinch the top edge of the mask around the bridge of your nose.
  • Do ensure the mask fits tight around your face but still feels comfortable. You should be able to breathe easily through it. Don't wear a face mask if it's hard for you to breathe.
  • Don't touch the mask while you're wearing it.
  • Don't reuse the mask if it's worn out or if it gets damp. Try not to touch the front of the face mask when you remove it. That's where the germs are. Instead, pull it off by the ear loops or ties and throw it in the trash.

After you wear it, store it in a breathable paper bag for at least 5 days. This gives any traces of virus on the mask time to die. When you reuse the mask, it's still a good idea to wash your hands if you touch the outside of it to adjust it.

Don't wear the same N95 mask more than five times, the CDC says. And if the mask looks soiled or shows signs of wear and tear, don't reuse it -- toss it in the trash.

You shouldn't reuse a disposable surgical mask, the CDC says. Throw it out after one use.

Wash cloth masks with hot water and detergent or soap after each wear. If your mask has a filter, take it out and throw it away before washing. Put the masks in your washing machine and hang them to dry. Wash your hands when you're done.

Before you use the mask again, check for holes. Make sure it's not frayed and doesn't gap around your face.

Some theories suggest that hanging a mask in sunlight can disinfect it. Studies have found that at least 15 minutes of UVC light makes the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) inactive. But that's different from the UVA and UVB light of the sun, and there's no research yet on whether UVC works on the new coronavirus. It's best to wash your mask in hot water.

Myth: Masks are mandatory.

Fact: As of April 2022, the CDC lifted the order requiring face masks on public transportation such as planes, buses, and trains. Workers in certain businesses may still prefer to mask up because they're in constant close contact with others.

Myth: Masks with a gap are useless.

Fact: A mask that doesn't fit exactly may not be totally useless, especially if it has a high filter level. And even cloth masks that fit perfectly can't stop all particles. But a mask with a gap or hole won't work nearly as well as one with no space around your nose and mouth.

Myth: You should wear a mask inside your home.

Fact: You don't need to wear a mask at home unless you're sick or caring for someone who's sick.

Myth: You should wear a mask when exercising outdoors.

Fact: It's fine to exercise outdoors without a face mask as long as you keep a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and other people.

Myth: Masks trap carbon dioxide and viruses.

Fact: Carbon dioxide can linger behind an N95 mask if you wear it for several hours, causing mild problems such as a headache, dizziness, or fatigue. But this risk is low with cloth and surgical masks.

Choose a well-fitting face mask of any material. Avoid gaps around your nose, mouth, chin, and the sides of your face. You can combine a cloth mask and a disposable mask to get better protection. Make sure your masks are clean -- wash your cloth masks and throw wet or dirty disposable ones away. Children too young to be vaccinated, with special health needs, or with vulnerable family members are encouraged to wear masks in high-risk environments for COVID.

Which face masks are best for coronavirus?

Face masks don't totally get rid of the risk of getting COVID, but all masks provide some level of protection. Properly fitting N95 masks are the most effective. You can also combine cloth and disposable masks for better protection.

Do masks help with air quality?

While masks are known to protect against diseases, there's some evidence that they can provide moderate to high protection against air pollution particles as well. It depends on the type of mask and the materials from which it's made.

How long can you wear a face mask?

Don't wear a cloth mask without washing it for longer than a day. Wash and dry your cloth masks on the highest setting and dispose of them if they get loose or the fabric starts to wear. Throw out disposable masks after each use. You can extend the life of KN95 masks by rotating their use. Do not wear the same one more than once every 3 days. If your KN95 gets wet or no longer fits properly, throw it out. Store each KN95 in a clean paper bag folded tightly between uses. Dispose of your N95 mask if it's dirty, damaged, or contaminated with your bodily fluids or those of another ill person.

What is the purpose of wearing a mask?

Masks help protect others from illness when you cough, sneeze, or breathe. If they fit right, they can also protect you from others' respiratory illnesses.

Do COVID masks work?

Respected researchers and organizations such as Cochrane have disagreed on the effectiveness of face masks in stopping the spread of respiratory diseases such as COVID. However, many of the studies that arrived at these conclusions were of small populations with masks worn improperly, which can bias research results. Scientists and health care providers are now strongly convinced that well-fitting and correctly worn masks do help reduce the risk of infection with COVID, but some types of face masks provide better protection than others.

Which mask is better N95 or KN95?

Nonsurgical N95 masks offer the highest level of protection. KN95 masks meet a set of international standards and can filter out large and small particles. However, you should take care when purchasing them, as some may not be up to quality.

Where can I find free N95 masks near me?

Beginning in 2022, the U.S. government began distributing free N95 masks to local health centers, pharmacies, and other community partners. Although the program is more than 2 years old, some masks may still be available. Do an online search for “free N95 masks” or visit the HHS.gov website at https://aspr.hhs.gov/SNS/Pages/Free-Masks.aspx.