It's more important than ever to have a steady supply of good masks and to wear them whenever you're out in public or spending time with people outside your household. As the Omicron variant drives a surge in Covid-19 cases, there's been a renewed focus on which masks to buy and where to get them. We looked into it, and here's what we've found.
Updated January 21st, 2022: We've added more info about the White House free mask distribution plan, the CDC's updated mask guidance, info about Workplace Performance masks, and a couple of new masks that fit this category.
- N95 Respirator Masks
- KN95 Masks
- Surgical Masks (3-Ply)
- Children's Masks
- Wait, Which Kind of Mask Should I Get?
- Does Omicron Change Mask Requirements?
- How Do I Avoid Counterfeit Masks?
- Can I Reuse Disposable Masks?
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Since the surge in Omicron cases, there's been extra confusion about which masks are effective. Some health experts have advised against using cloth masks. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control's guidance on masks was recently updated to say that N95 masks offer the “highest protection.” However, the agency still recommends that the best mask is one you'll wear correctly and consistently.
The best kinds of disposable face masks to wear haven't changed a lot:
- N95 masks are your best bet. N95s are regulated by the US-based NIOSH agency to meet a certain standard of quality. N95s are sometimes referred to as “respirators.”
- KN95 and KF94 masks are also effective, and likely comfier. KN95s are governed by a different set of standards specific to China and are sometimes easier to find. KF94 masks are similar to KN95, but governed by a Korean standard. These are also sometimes referred to as “respirators.”
- Surgical-style masks (3-ply) are the next-best thing you can wear. They aren't as effective as those above, but if they have a good tight fit they can still be effective in less risky settings. We have tips on how to improve your fit in our guide to our favorite masks.
- Cloth masks are not as effective. If you can't get your hands on the masks listed above, at least wear a cloth mask, but they're likely far less effective, depending on their material makeup.
You can double-mask with a surgical mask and a cloth mask, but it's important to keep in mind that for N95s, this might alter their effectiveness. The CDC explicitly advises against combining a KN95 mask with any other kind of mask, including cloth coverings. In general, any N95 mask that fits to your face could be pushed out of place if you put a cloth covering over it.