New recommendations from federal health officials advise Americans that respirator masks may provide more protection against COVID-19 this winter.
N95 masks, also known as respirators, have been proven to provide better filtration and protection over cloth masks made earlier in the pandemic.
Research suggests disposable surgical masks are nearly as efficient in filtering nearby airborne particles as respirators when worn correctly, and even more effective when worn with a cloth mask on top.
We're sharing Good Housekeeping Institute experts' and editors' picks for the most effective face masks to purchase for the winter season below.
Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have updated current mask guidelines to acknowledge that respirators "provide more protection to the wearer" than cloth masks. The move comes as CDC officers have confirmed Omicron is more easily transmissible than the Delta strain — and now, increasing numbers of health professionals across the country stress that many cloth-based face masks may not provide sufficient protection against Omicron specifically.
Americans may wish to upgrade masks they've purchased or made reaching back to mid-2020 to better-designed options, particularly advocating for surgical-style disposable masks as well as top-grade N95 or KN95 respirators. Experts have long established that respirators are the best possible option to filter and block contagious SARS-CoV-2 particles (the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis). But many may be surprised to hear that research like Duke University's landmark 2021 study indicates that disposable surgical masks were the next most effective piece of protection against the virus.
Lexie Sachs, the Good Housekeeping Institute's Textiles Director, says there are multiple classifications that shoppers can keep an eye out for when looking for well-made masks or respirator options. Primarily, industry organization ASTM provides standards for manufacturers to follow in production. In addition to products that meet ASTM standards, the CDC's National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (known as NIOSH) regulates approval for respirators and has published tips for determining when an N95 may be counterfeit.
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We're highlighting the most protective masks and respirators you can purchase now below, and with Sachs's help and expert-driven data, we're recapping need-to-know info about shopping for legitimately effective mask designs.
What's the best mask to protect against the Omicron variant?
Once reserved solely for healthcare workers at the onset of the pandemic, respirators like a NIOSH-approved N95 are the most effective at filtering the air around you — and since Omicron has been shown to be increasingly viral in small, crowded and under-ventilated spaces, respirators are best. Respirators carry proven efficacy in their names alone; an N95 stops 95% of particles in the air around you from entering your nose and mouth, per experts at the Cleveland Clinic.
Though not all respirators are made in America, many can be just as effective as N95s — the issue that plagues consumers now, however, are counterfeit masks that are marketed as true respirators, which are regulated for quality assurance. NIOSH maintains a list of approved N95 respirators, making it easier to find one that'll really work; usually, they are made with two head-bound straps, a wire nose clip as well as labels that indicate NIOSH approval, according to the CDC.
Internationally made options like KN95s, KF94s, FFP3s or R95s aren't always regulated by NIOSH, and unlike N95s, U.S. health officials do not certify or approve them officially. In fact, about 60% of KN95 respirators sold in the U.S. carry bogus NIOSH approval, which has pushed CDC officials to have to publish guidance on telltale signs that a respirator isn't as protective as you may think.
But there may be another reason Americans may wish to turn to a surgical mask over a respirator, despite any differences in filtration abilities — all respirators must be properly fitted and sealed against your face to work as promised, and many healthcare experts say this is tricky for most people to do correctly. Surgical masks are easier to wear properly.
Surgical masks can be up to 10% less effective than an N95 respirator, one expert tells CNN, but the effectiveness varies based on their ASTM categorization, Sachs explains. There are three different categories to choose from, with 1, 2 and 3 grading masks from least to most protective. The slight difference in efficacy can be resolved by doubling up with a cloth mask — one that's made from at least 3 layers and higher thread counts — atop a surgical mask, which ensures it fits perfectly without having to perform an actual fit test.
If you're unable to secure a respirator or do not wish to wear a disposable surgical mask, choosing to shop for a better-designed cloth mask is encouraged if you're still holding onto masks made earlier in the pandemic. CDC officials have reported that multi-layered cloth masks made with thicker materials provide better protection compared to "single layers of cloth with lower thread counts." Finding these optimized cloth masks from quality retailers is important, which is why GH Institute editors have compiled a guide of the best cloth masks.
What's the best mask for children to wear against COVID-19 variants?
Fit and comfort level of a mask or a respirator is crucial when choosing a face mask for a child over 2 years old, Sachs stresses. Since kids are wearing a mask for long periods of time at school or around friends, she adds that helping your child practice wearing a mask at home is key — you'll want to check on fit so that a mask fully covers both the nose and chin without puckered gaps at the cheeks, for starters.
While there are indeed respirators made in smaller kid's sizes, these N95s aren't regulated by NIOSH, Sachs says. A majority of healthcare providers would also suggest avoiding using a respirator on children if possible, as active children can't always keep a proper fit on the mask throughout the day. Most importantly, your child may find respirators harder to breathe in compared to medical-grade surgical masks or cloth masks, especially during physical activity.
When choosing a cloth mask or a disposable medical mask for your child, look for the same qualities you'd look for yourself: How many layers is this mask made with? Will it fit my child loosely or correctly over the nose, mouth and chin? Is it made with nonwoven textiles that are easier to breathe through compared to heavier cloth fabrics? And, how often will this mask need to be cleaned as well as in which manner? Determining answers to these questions can help you pick out a great face mask for school or extracurriculars — and if you can't answer them when viewing the product online or in the store, try finding another option.
How to shop for the best face masks to protect against Omicron:
Keep this shopping checklist in mind when you're on the hunt for a new face mask or respirator.
Consider a respirator or a disposable surgical mask first. There's a reason why healthcare experts at the Mayo Clinic began requiring patients and visitors to wear these medical masks or respirators. There's mounting evidence that these kinds of face coverings are inherently better suited to keep the wearer safe, so consider upgrading your mask collection to include these options.
Choose a mask that's made from nonwoven textiles when possible. Sachs explains these materials are used in things like tea bags and dryer sheets; woven fabrics, on the other hand, are made from yarn and are used to make things like bedsheets, and should be considered secondary options. Avoid cloth masks that are made from a few layers of knit fabrics as they're not as protective.
Look for masks made from multiple layers. Though there are some masks and respirators that have confirmed filtration abilities tied to them, don't stress too much about claims of filtration, as "particle filtration" claims do not always equate to SARS-CoV-2 particles, Sachs advises. Rather, look for how many layers the mask is made with, or if it's made with a filter layer for disposable options. A well-designed cloth mask will have multiple layers for efficacy.
Keep an eye out for classifications or certifications. To avoid counterfeits, you should always consult NIOSH's full list of approved N95s, and triple check the international respirators you're considering as the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) emergency-based approval of these masks in 2021 has now been rolled back. It's more likely that you'll keep an eye out for ASTM standard F3502, which are a benchmark of standards manufacturers use to ensure their masks are effective. In the case of disposable surgical masks, you'll look for language that suggests the mask "Meets ASTM F2100" level guidelines, which is a separate standard for these medical-style masks. Level 3 is the most protective and readily available online for shoppers to purchase now.
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