As long as very contagious variants of the coronavirus, like Omicron, keep prolonging the pandemic, masks remain an important way to stay safer in certain situations. Depending on the spread of COVID-19, 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.
Here's everything you need to know, including the different types of masks available and what to look for when you buy them.
When Should You Wear a Mask?
It's important to wear a face covering in a variety of situations.
If you have COVID symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, 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 the coronavirus to spread. But if COVID-19 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 current on your COVID-19 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-19 data in your area. The map shows COVID-19 data by county. It’s color-coded green, yellow, or red, for low, medium, and high levels of virus spread. 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. There’s 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. COVID-19 community spread is high. 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.
These guidelines mean about 70% of Americans can now go without masks if they want. But some businesses and other entities may continue to require masks, since it’s difficult to tell who's vaccinated and who's not.
In communities with low or medium COVID-19 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 required inside most forms of public transportation such as airplanes, trains, and buses.
Anyone should wear a face mask if they're sick and around other people or animals, even at home. 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 Can Skip Face 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
How Face Masks Work
When someone who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or talks, they send tiny droplets with the coronavirus into the air. That's where a mask can help.
Can Face Masks Protect Me From the Coronavirus?
Face masks won't totally block the coronavirus, but some, like the N95, 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:
- Loosely woven cloth masks protect you the least.
- Layered, finely woven masks protect you more.
- Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95 mask protect you even more.
- Well-fitting NIOSH-approved masks (like N95s) give you the most protection.
If you've been wearing cloth masks through the pandemic, understand that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is highly infectious, and you can boost your safety by upgrading to an N95 or KN95 mask. But if you can't upgrade or you don't want to, other types of masks can still give you some protection as long as they fit you well and you wear them consistently.
Here's a closer look at each type:
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 respirator when it's available. Choose one that's high quality and says “NIOSH Approved” on the label.
Health care workers need priority access to a type of N95 respirator that's specially labeled “surgical.” Supplies of these can be limited, and demand for them can be high.
Respirator masks, or “respirators,” like the N95 give the highest level of protection against the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
You may be able to get a NIOSH-approved N95 mask for free. The HRSA Health Center COVID-19 N95 Mask Program is also providing NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks to health centers across the country. The program will offer up to three of these masks per person for free. Not every health center will provide the masks, so check your local health authority or the HRSA website to find out where and when to get yours.
In addition to health care centers, grocery and drugstore chains like Kroger, Meijer, CVS, and Walgreens will also give out the masks at their retail locations.
KN95 masks are supposed to be made to 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 respirator masks.
Surgical masks (also called disposable 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 the coronavirus.
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 the protection you get 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.
For any type of mask, if it's wet or dirty, get another one.
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.
How Much One-Way Masking Protects You
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-19 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.
Face Mask Features
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 like hair salons and barber shops.
Filter vs. no filter. A series of layers of fabric makes more places 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 like fiberglass in it.
What to Look for When Buying a Mask
If you're buying a cloth mask, check that it uses designs or sewing instructions from experts like 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 air flow. 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.
How to Wear a Face Mask
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure the mask has no holes.
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.
The mask should fit tight around your face but still feel comfortable. You should be able to breathe easily through it. Don't wear a mask if it's hard for you to breathe.
Don't touch the mask while you're wearing it.
How to Remove Your Mask
Take the mask off after you've worn it or if it gets damp. Try not to touch the front of the 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.
How to Reuse an N95 Mask
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.
How to Clean and Care for Your Mask
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. Be 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 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 stick with washing a mask in hot water.
Face Mask Myths and Facts
Are masks mandatory?
It depends on where you live and what you do there. Many state and local governments have loosened their rules about face masks in public places. Workers in certain businesses may still have to mask up because they're in constant close contact with others. Masks are also still required on all forms of public transportation such as planes, buses, and trains.
Are masks useless if there's a gap?
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 no space around your nose and mouth.
Should you wear a mask inside your home?
You don't need to wear a mask at home unless you're sick or caring for someone who's sick.
Should you wear a mask when exercising outdoors?
It's fine to exercise outdoors without a mask as long as you keep at least 6 feet between yourself and other people.
Do masks trap carbon dioxide and viruses?