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With concerns about Covid-19 variants across the country, many people are restocking their supply of disposable face masks to wear outside the home. And unlike the beginning of the pandemic, when face masks were in short supply, shoppers now have many options to choose from, like reusable cloth masks, disposable masks and respirators (N95s and KN95s, for example).
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, experts said, is that any mask is better than no mask at all.
“Next to social distancing, face masking is without question the most effective mechanism to prevent transmission of viruses,” said MarkAlain Déry, DO, MPH, an epidemiologist and medical director for infectious diseases at Access Health Louisiana.
When someone is talking about a disposable face mask, they are typically referring to one of three distinct types: a medical-grade disposable face mask, a nonmedical-grade disposable face mask or a respirator. We talked to our experts about the difference between these types of disposable masks, who should wear them and how to shop for them. We also highlight options for kids and adults based on guidance from our experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.Types of disposable face masks
What medical-grade and nonmedical-grade disposable face masks, as well as respirators, have in common is that they’re designed to be single-use face coverings — after you wear it, or when it gets dirty or contaminated, it goes in the trash.
That doesn’t actually mean you have to toss them after a single use, however. Depending on the mask and how long you wear it for, it can be worn multiple times if you remove and store it properly, and as long as it is not wet or contaminated, for example.How to shop for disposable face masks
When it comes to disposable face masks, the CDC recommends wearing models that offer:
- A proper fit over your nose and mouth to prevent leaks
- Multiple layers of nonwoven material. Experts told us your mask should be at least two-ply, but three-ply is ideal.
- A nose wire
- No exhalation valve
Beyond the CDC’s guidance, experts we spoke to said you can also look for masks that have an inner lining with moisture-wicking and antibacterial properties. They mentioned that you shouldn't sweat price points too much, as more expensive disposable masks don’t guarantee better protection.
Jay Woody, MD, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a co-founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care, noted it’s important to remember that “while all surgical masks are considered face masks, not all face masks are considered surgical face masks.” When you’re shopping, check the label on the box to differentiate between medical grade and nonmedical grade to ensure you’re grabbing the right one for your needs.The pros and cons of disposable masks
According to Déry, medical-grade disposable face masks are better than cloth masks at protecting others if the person wearing them is infected.
“There have been a number of studies looking at the efficacy of disposable masks,” Déry said. “In terms of N95 and the three-layered surgical masks, these performed the best, both in terms of the inhalation and exhalation of the virus.”
On the other hand, medical-grade or not, disposable masks create more waste, since they can’t be reworn repeatedly. Plus, supplies may be limited, depending on local Covid surges and mask shortages at medical facilities. And since you have to continually buy new disposable masks, they can end up being more expensive.Medical-grade disposable masks
Medical-grade disposable face masks are regulated by the FDA and must meet strict criteria in order to be considered medical devices. Medical-grade face masks are also referred to as surgical masks or medical procedure masks, according to the CDC. They are not the same thing as N95 respirators, which are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The FDA notes that the edges of surgical masks “are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.” The masks filter out large particles — which are bigger than very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs or sneezes — and protect the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with splashes or sprays that might contain germs, said Jeannie Kenkare, DO, chief medical officer and co-founder of Northeast-based PhysicianOne Urgent Care.
Experts we consulted didn’t specifically recommend medical-grade disposable face masks for the general public except for people in a high-risk category, which the World Health Organization defines as those over 60 or with underlying health conditions such as chronic respiratory disease, cancer and obesity. However, unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, medical-grade disposable face masks are more readily available, so if you’re interested in purchasing them, you can find them at retailers like Amazonand Walmart or pharmacies like CVS.Medical-grade disposable face masks to buy
The FDA does not maintain a list of surgical mask suppliers. When you’re shopping for medical-grade disposable face masks, however, Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said to look for products that say they are ASTM Level 1, 2 or 3 on the package.
“This means the mask can filter out at least 95 percent of particles of all sizes, and at least 98 percent for Levels 2 and 3,” she said.
If you’re looking to purchase a medical-grade disposable mask, Marr said, the difference among ASTM Levels 1, 2 and 3 “is probably not significant for everyday use, where fit is more important.” In other words, she said, a leaky surgical mask — one that fits your face poorly and has gaps along the sides and top — is not effective.
Since we don't test masks ourselves, we rely on expert guidance and our previous reporting about how to shop for masks. The CDC recommends anyone shopping for masks look for multiple layers and adjustable nose wires, and experts told us to ensure masks can be made to fit tightly against the face. The following face masks list features that align with our research and are highly rated.
These surgical masks come in a box of 50 and are designed with three layers of nonwoven fabric. They feature an adjustable nose bridge and earloops.
Built with three layers of fabric, these surgical masks have an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. They come in a box of 50 masks, and are also available in the color Black and in children’s sizes.Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks
Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks look like surgical masks but are not regulated by the FDA, as they are not intended for use in medical settings, Kenkare said.
“They come in many varieties and [are] of varying quality of fit and filtration,” she said.
They typically come in two- or three-layer builds and are recommended for the general public over medical-grade face masks, according to multiple experts. They’re a fine option for the public if they’re available in your area, said Ellen Turner, MD, an infectious-diseases physician and adjunct professor at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks to buy
We don't test masks ourselves, so we depend on expert guidance and our previous reporting about how to shop for masks. The CDC recommends masks with multiple layers and adjustable nose wires, and experts told us to ensure the masks shoppers buy can be made to fit tightly against the face. The following face masks — some of which appear in our previous coverage — list features that align with our research and have all been highly rated.
You can purchase CandyCare’s disposable face masks in packs of 25 to 2,000. They’re built with three layers of fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops.
CASETiFY’s disposable face masks feature three layers of fabric, and they’re latex-free and hypoallergenic. The masks have an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. The masks come in multiple colors like Mushroom (nude), Fern (dark green) and Cobalt (blue). Masks come in compostable packaging.
Available in packs of seven or 30, Evolvetogether’s disposable face masks are available in colors like Tokyo (gray), Amazonia (green) and Milan (black). They’re designed with three layers of fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. The masks come with two mask keepers, which you can use to store masks when you’re not wearing them. The masks’ packaging is made from biodegradable and recyclable materials.
These face masks come in Black, Blue and White. You can purchase them in packs of 50 to 1,000. They’re designed with three layers of nonwoven fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops.
MASKC’s disposable face masks offer three layers of fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. The masks come in a pack of 10 and are available in colors like Midnight (black) and Tuscany (pearlescent pink), as well as variety packs and multiple patterns.
These face masks are constructed from three layers of nonwoven fabric and have an adjustable nose bridge and elastic ear loops. You can purchase them in sets of 50 or 100, as well as colors from Black to Pink. The masks also come in patterns, individually wrapped options and children’s sizes.
WeCare’s disposable face masks come individually wrapped. They’re made from three layers of nonwoven fabric and have an adjustable nose bridge. You can purchase packs of 50 masks in colors and prints like Black, Red and Jaguar.
WellBefore’s disposable face masks can be purchased with ear loops, adjustable ear loops or an adjustable head strap. They’re made from three layers of fabric and have an adjustable nose strip. The masks are available in Blue and Black, and you can order as few as 10 masks to over 1,000. Masks come individually wrapped.Respirators
Beyond medical- and nonmedical-grade face masks, there are respirators, the best known of which include N95s and KN95s. They are “designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles,” according to the FDA. Respirators are manufactured according to country-specific standards and are regulated by country-specific governing bodies.
For example, N95s are regulated by NIOSH. The N95 designation means they’ve been proven to filter out 95 percent of bacteria, viruses and airborne particles of 0.3 microns. Don’t get hung up on that measurement, though — the CDC has repeatedly stressed that masks like the N95 are no less effective at capturing smaller particles like the approximately 0.1-micron Covid virus, which usually piggybacks on larger droplets. In other words, those oft-forwarded social-media claims that masks are useless against coronaviruses are completely false.
NIOSH also has P95 and R95 ratings, which are for industrial use and that you don’t need to worry about if you're just looking for medical protection. Other N ratings include N99 and N100, though the N95 is the only one most people need to think about for Covid protection.
Other countries’ and regions’ standards include Europe’s FFP2, which is the counterpart to the N95 in the U.S., and KN95, the Chinese version. The FDA approved several KN95 models for temporary use by health care workers early in the pandemic but withdrew that emergency authorization in July 2021, when U.S.-made respirators were no longer in short supply.
You can read more about respirators and who should wear them in our guide to KN95 masks.How disposable masks work
Like reusable cloth face masks, disposable face masks protect those around the wearer by blocking virus particles from entering the air, thus decreasing the chance that someone infected with Covid will spread the virus, explained Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. To some extent, they also help shield what the wearer breathes in. And the masks can prevent wearers from touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, mouth or nose, said Woody.
Because nonmedical-grade disposable masks are not regulated by the FDA, there is no uniform design standard they follow, but most have at least two layers.
Medical-grade masks, however, are regulated by the FDA and adhere to specific standards. The outer layer is typically water-repellent to protect against large droplets, the middle layer usually has an antibacterial filter, and the inner layer is designed to absorb moisture from our breath and minimize skin irritation, said Manisha Singal, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician and chief medical officer of Bridgepoint Hospital in Washington, D.C, where she serves as a critical-care physician.Why wear a face mask?
There’s no question among credible experts that masks help reduce the risk of viral transmission. One CDC study released in February found that, between two properly masked or double-masked people, the risk of one giving the other a virus was cut by over 95 percent.
Even though highly effective Covid vaccines and booster shots are now widely available to Americans 12 and older, the CDC recommends even fully vaccinated people still mask up in indoor public spaces or crowded outdoor spaces where there’s substantial or high transmission, or if they have underlying medical conditions. Everyone, vaccinated or not, is required to wear a mask on public transportation or inside transportation hubs anywhere in the U.S., though you can remove your mask in open-air areas, like the outside deck of a ferry.
Though it’s natural to worry first about the amount of protection a mask is giving you, the wearer, masking up protects other people, too, as demonstrated in numerous studies like these gathered by the CDC. Because you can show no symptoms of the coronavirus and still pass it on, you need to wear a mask to reduce the possibility that you’ll transmit Covid to someone who may get really sick from it or who’ll pass it on to other people, leading to increased spread of the virus. So, according to the CDC, in places like malls or large outdoor music festivals, for example, you should be wearing a mask regardless of how good you feel or whether or not you’re worried about catching it yourself.How to wear a face mask
A mask won’t protect you or the people around you unless you wear it correctly. The CDC notes that, in order to be effective, face masks must completely cover your mouth and nose and fit tightly against your face to prevent gaps around the sides of the mask, nose and chin.
All masks fit differently. Respirators like N95s and KN95s are designed to form a seal around the mouth and nose, for example, while reusable cloth and disposable masks often have a looser fit. Features like adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge help you improve the fit of your mask, as do mask fitters or braces. The knot-and-tuck method can also create a tighter fit when you wear a disposable face mask.
Another way to improve the fit of certain face masks is to double-mask — wear a disposable mask underneath a reusable cloth mask. It’s important to note that the CDC advises against double-masking while wearing respirators, and you should not wear two disposable masks.
Using a fitter or brace or double-masking is especially recommended for people with facial hair, which can make it difficult to achieve a tight fit. And if you wear glasses, a telltale sign that your mask isn't tight enough on the top is if your lenses begin to fog up.
Keep in mind that wet, dirty or contaminated masks are generally less effective, which is why it’s important to regularly wash your reusable masks. If you’re wearing a disposable face mask, replace it if it becomes wet or visibly dirty. And with all masks, be sure to properly remove them from your face: Take it off by the straps and wash your hands immediately afterward.