How do I pick the right mask?

Along with social distancing and frequent hand-washing, wearing a mask in public is an important way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. At this point, there are countless masks to choose from, so picking the “best” one might seem hard. The two most common types that you’ll see around town are surgical masks and reusable cloth masks. N95 and KN95 masks are sometimes available, but we’ll cover them in their own article.

Surgical masks: These are single-use masks for medical professionals and sick patients. They provide good filtration of droplets, but surgical masks cannot be washed or reused. They are also “one size fits some,” and they might fit too loosely to be effective.

Cloth masks: These masks are widely available from many stores, and they can be washed and reused over and over again. Cloth masks have been shown to be effective for use by the general public. The concern is that they fit properly (more on that below). Cloth masks should be made out of two layers of cloth—usually a cotton or a cotton blend. There are many different styles to choose from, so pick one that fits you best!

How to pick a mask with good fit?

Here are some quick pointers:   

  • Test fit by inhaling sharply—the mask should seal against your mouth and nose.  Exhale sharply, and the mask should inflate a little. You shouldn’t feel any air leaking around your nose and chin.
  • Fit is super important, and sewing a flexible wire nose piece into the mask can help. Coffee bag closures work great for this!
  • High thread count cotton cloth provides better filtration than cloth with a lower thread count. But the material shouldn’t totally block air flow, otherwise air will just leak around the sides of the mask.

Choosing a well-made and fitted mask is just one part of responsible mask-wearing. Your mask also needs to be worn properly all the time while you’re in public in order to maximize its effectiveness.


Last update: August 6, 2020, 6:45 pm ET

Science review: ERS, AGB, JAB