The Best Face Mask for Traveling
Mask mandates have disappeared across much of the country, but you may still want to hang onto your masks you still have around the house - especially the FFP2s - aka N95. It is strongly advised that you use N95s rather than "loosely woven cloth masks" which provide little protection against COVID-19. If you're using a homemade cloth mask, you may be at higher risk than you think. Instead, use a mask that has higher protection so you can stay safe.
Surgical masks and KN95s provide more protection than cloth face coverings, and approved well-fitting respirators such as FFP2s or N95s provide the most protection. If you're in higher-risk group for COVID because of your job or health condition this is especially important to keep in mind.
Below you can find the opinions of two infectious disease specialists to determine the best face mask to protect yourself against the coronavirus in 2022, given the rapidly changing landscape. Their advice is below, followed by some updated recommendations based on their expertise.
Disposable N95, KN95, KF94 masks vs. cloth masks
According to the CDC's updated guidance, a well-fitting respirator that is approved by the the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers the "highest level of protection" out of any face covering. These include N95 respirators, a disposable face covering that filters out at least 95% of airborne particles.
"An N95 is the best, if you can get it," said Dr. Bob Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Health and author of Immunity Strong. The CDC recommends N95s labeled "surgical" for health care personnel.
One popular alternative to the N95 is the KN95 respirator, which is the Chinese equivalent of the US standard. KN95s are made from the same material as N95s and are also designed to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. Another alternative is the KF94, the South Korean equivalent to an N95, which has a slightly different shape and 94% filtration efficacy. (Neither KN95s nor KF94s are NIOSH-approved.)
Whether you're wearing an , it won't be effective unless the face mask fits your face properly and you can wear it consistently, the CDC says. "Make sure it fits snugly, without gaps around your nose, face and mouth," Dr. Bob Bollinger, professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said. This is why these masks typically have an adjustable nose wire for a better fit.
Then there are surgical-style masks -- the disposable kind of protective mask that you can find in every convenience store these days. These surgical mask-style coverings offer less protection than respirators -- according to the CDC, a respirator such as an N95 "has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask."
Whatever you do, don't rely on a fabric mask alone any more. They're good at protecting others from your respiratory droplets, but not at protecting you against theirs, even with a filter pocket. "I would say people should choose disposable masks, not cloth," Lahita said. "A cloth face mask is better than no mask if you don't have access to the disposable ones. It helps protect others if you sneeze or cough -- but it's less effective than the disposable version or the N95 face mask, especially because many people don't wash their cloth masks often."
Another way to maximize protection is to double mask with a cloth and surgical mask. If you can't find an N95, KN95 or KF94, Bollinger said, "a good-quality disposable mask under a cloth mask is a reasonable alternative, as long as the fit on the face, nose and mouth is tight." You can also put an N95, KN95 or KF94 under a regular disposable mask for a tighter seal.
Different masks for different tasks
Different types of face masks offer varying amounts of protection. But not everyone needs the exact same level of protection, and specific situations may call for more or less caution.
For instance, during the omicron surge there was a sharp increase in risk of transmission, so experts advised upgrading accordingly to a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94, or double masking.
The CDC says that "a respirator may be considered in certain situations and by certain people when greater protection is needed or desired." Some of the situations that call for a respirator include:
- Crowded indoor or outdoor public settings
- Workplaces that involve interacting with the public
- Caring for someone who has COVID-19
- If you're not up to date on your COVID vaccinations (including boosters)
- If you're immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions
Opting for higher protection is also a good idea whenever you're in a riskier public setting, like traveling on public transportation or visiting a health care facility, no matter your own health status. "Certainly, if you're in a nursing home or a hospital, you must wear an N95," Lahita said. "If you're in a classroom with kids, the teacher should be wearing an N95."
If you're up to date on your shots, low-risk and in a region with less transmission, a well-fitting surgical mask is fine for regular, daily use. And when you're outdoors, masking is less necessary, Lahita said. That's unless you're in a crowded area, or will be in close contact with unvaccinated people.
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Wish you all safe summer travels!