Face masks are an indispensable part of your lives now. Wearing a face mask will not only protect you from contracting a COVID-19 infection but will also curb its spread and protect others around you. 

Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a strain of Coronavirus (a kind of common virus that causes an infection in your nose, sinuses, or upper throat) called SARS-CoV-2. Covid-19, which started off in a small province of Wuhan, China in November 2019, is a global pandemic today that has affected more than 220 countries across the world. 

Covid-19 spreads easily and rapidly from person to person and the most common symptoms include fever, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness, diarrhea, headache, and a loss of sense of taste and smell. Wearing a face mask, maintaining a physical distance of more than 6 feet with another person and regular washing of hands are the best ways to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

While wearing a mask is important, especially when you are outdoors, wearing the right mask is even more critical. With so many options to choose from, it is necessary to pick a mask that is most effective and offers the best protection against COVID-19. Several studies and researches have shown that not all types of masks are fully effective and some offer only limited protection.

Let’s look at the popular types of masks used, how effective they are, and who should ideally wear them. We will also try and answer popular questions revolving around what happens when you wear two layers or two masks.

Types of Masks and Their Effectiveness Against COVID-19

1. N95 Respirator Masks: N95 respirator mask is a protective device designed to achieve efficient filtration of very small airborne particles. These masks offer a snug/tight facial fit that protects you from bacteria, viruses, dust particles, and aerosols (a suspension of fine solid particles or liquid droplets in the air or in other gases). Examples of natural aerosols are fog, mist, dust, forest exudates (resin, gums, and oil), and geyser steam.

  • N95 respiratory masks filter 99.9% large droplets and about 95% of aerosols.

  • This mask is the most effective in protection against COVID-19 and is primarily worn by health care workers. 

  • If you’re using an N95 mask, make sure you keep it dry and disinfect it every time. Do not reuse the same one multiple times (maximum of 5 times), as it will affect the filtration capacity of the mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend the general public to wear this mask, as it is an essential supply and should be reserved for the healthcare workers and the medical staff.

2. Surgical Masks: A surgical mask, also known as a medical mask, is a loose-fitting face mask that is generally worn by doctors and healthcare professionals during medical procedures, to prevent the transmission of airborne infections.

  • A surgical mask is equally effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

  • Surgical masks filter 98.5% large droplets and about 89.5% of aerosols. 

  • They are generally worn by healthcare workers but are available for the general public as well. 

  • Discard a surgical mask immediately (in a closed bin) after use of 4 to 5 hours. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after discarding a mask.

3. Handmade/Homemade Fabric Masks: A fabric mask, commonly known as a cloth mask, is a mask made of common textiles, usually cotton, and is worn over the mouth and nose. 

The right cloth mask, properly fitted, does a good job of filtering viral particles of the size most likely to cause the Covid-19 infection.

  • A tightly-woven, 2-layered 100% cotton mask is your best bet. It is known to filter 97% of large airborne particles. 

  • Masks made of cotton-polyester blends also offer similar protection. 

  • Ensure to wash your cloth mask with detergent and hot water. Dry it out in the sun and you can also iron it before re-using it.

Homemade or handmade fabric masks are the best solution for the general public since it is easy and affordable to make them and they are re-usable, unlike N95 respiratory or surgical masks.

4. Scarves and Bandannas: Simply put, a scarf is a piece of lightweight fabric, worn on your head or around your neck. It is made from a wide variety of fabrics such as cotton, silk, wool, georgette, muslin, etc. 

A bandanna (also known as a bandana or a gaiter) is usually a large triangular or square piece of cloth that is worn on the head or tied around the neck.

  • A scarf of a bandanna offers the least amount of protection against COVID-19.

  • They can filter out only 44% of large particles and 49% of aerosols. 

A scarf or a bandanna should be your last resort. At times when no other mask is available, then tying a bandanna or a gaiter is better than no protection at all.

5. Face Shield: Face shields are personal protective equipment (PPE) devices that covers your entire face. Face shields are commonly used in industrial or manufacturing activities and also by healthcare providers. 

It typically contains two parts: a visor that covers the face and is made of plastic and a method of holding the visor intact at a place, such as a headband or a strap.

  • Face shields are not a replacement for masks. 

  • Wearing only a face shield will offer less or no protection since they have large gaps below and alongside the face, making it easy for respiratory droplets to escape. 

  • Always use a face shield along with a mask for greater protection.

More Points to Remember

1. The shape of a mask also matters. Talking about cloth masks, those that cup tightly to your face are the best. Masks with pleats or folds are also a good choice.

2. Avoid masks with exhalation valves. The valve makes it easier to breathe out unfiltered air, and so it doesn't protect others if you're contagious. 

3. Handle a face mask carefully. Avoid touching it with your hands and make sure it covers your mouth and nose completely.

4. Face masks can cause skin irritation and lead to acne or pimples. Wash your face at night before you sleep and use a moisturizer to protect your face from drying out.

Does Wearing Two Face Masks Offer Extra Protection?

The idea of wearing a mask is to create a barrier. There is enough research to prove the effectiveness of wearing a single face mask in the protection against Covid-19. However, there are myths and doubts regarding wearing two face masks at the same time.

While the use of two face masks for better protection against Covid-19 is still under study, researchers have some theories. Understand that double masking adds an extra layer of filter, but it’s not entirely necessary.

  • Double masking makes it more difficult for infected droplets to transmit easily. This could prove to be beneficial for healthcare employees and medical staff.

  • It can be a good idea for infected patients to double up their masks to protect the spread to immediate people in their surroundings. 

  • It is also suggested that wearing two masks will not harm you and is safe, as long both are clean and hygienic.

Now that you are aware of what type of masks you should use, choose wisely and carefully. Always remember that some protection is better than no protection at all. You will have to continue wearing masks, and follow all social distancing norms to control the spread of COVID-19 infection.


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5. Hackensack Meridian Health. 2020. Which Masks Are Most Effective And Why? - COVID-19, Health Topics - Hackensack Meridian Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2020/08/26/which-masks-are-most-effective-and-why/> [Accessed 16 December 2020].

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