It's Time To Swap Out Your Cloth Face Masks For KN95s Or N95s

It's Time To Swap Out Your Cloth Face Masks For KN95s Or N95s

With new COVID-19 recommendations being released what feels like almost every day, making decisions about how and when to mask up can be confusing. Inside, or outside? Even if you're vaccinated? What if you got a booster shot, too?

Now, as the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 continue to spread, it's important to stay up-to-date on the latest advice from the CDC. New guidelines from the agency are here to clear up all of your questions about face masks.

It might be time to reevaluate the masks you use, whether they're disposable or reusable. Here's everything you need to know, straight from the CDC:

When should I wear a mask?

The CDC now recommends that everyone over the age of two should wear a mask in indoor public spaces, including public transportation. And, anyone with a weakened immune system should wear a mask and take all other precautions recommended for unvaccinated people.

Outdoors, you only need to mask up in certain situations. If you're in a crowded setting in an area with a high number of COVID-19 cases, then it's a good idea to wear a mask. You might also want to wear one during activities that bring you in close contact with people who aren't fully vaccinated.

Wondering how many COVID-19 cases are in your area right now? The CDC has an interactive map that can show you current statistics by county.

Which masks offer the best protection against COVID-19?

If you're unsure which kind of mask you should be wearing, you're not alone. The new guidelines rank how well each type of face mask protects against COVID-19:

  • Loosely woven fabric masks provide the least protection.

  • Finely woven fabric masks with multiple layers have better protection.

  • Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even greater protection.

  • Well-fitting, NIOSH-approved respirators (like N95s) provide the most protection.

The CDC also recommends layering a disposable, surgical mask underneath a fabric mask for added protection and a better fit.

"Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of Omicron," noted CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, on CNN Newsroom.

"You should be wearing a KN95 or N95 mask" in public places, Wen added. (More on those masks in a second.)

What kind of masks does the CDC recommend?

When purchasing masks, the CDC recommends looking for ones that meet the American Society for Testing and Materials' (ASTM) F3502-21 specifications.

Masks should be able to filter out droplets from your own nose and mouth, preventing them from escaping into the air, according to the ASTM. They should also be able to filter the air you breathe in, reducing the number of particles you inhale.

Here's what to look for:

  • Face masks can be either disposable or reusable.

  • Your mask should cover your nose and mouth and fit snugly against your face and nose. There shouldn't be any gaps.

  • Your mask should be able to stay in place over your nose and mouth during all of your daily activities.

  • Masks should be made from non-toxic materials that won't irritate your skin, even after hours of wear.

  • And, masks should be able to fit anyone over the age of two or come in multiple sizes that will fit both adults and children.

The CDC also supports new guidelines from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In addition to meeting all of the ASTM requirements listed above, masks that fit the NIOSH guidelines, called Workplace Performance, will also:

  • Have a filtration efficiency of 50% or greater

  • Meet breathability standards

  • Have a leakage ratio of 5 or higher

According to the CDC, "the leakage ratio is the number of particles outside the mask compared to the number inside the mask." A higher leakage ratio number means that fewer particles will escape from the mask's edges.

The CDC has a list of NIOSH-approved masks here, so you can be confident you're purchasing a mask that meets all of the organization's breathability and leakage ratio standards.

The NIOSH has also released Workplace Performance Plus recommendations, which are the best standards that a face mask can meet. These criteria help face mask manufacturers produce masks that are designed to cut down on the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, according to the CDC.

They include, in addition to the ASTM guidelines:

  • At least 80% filtration efficiency

  • Meet breathability standards

  • Have a leakage ratio of 10 or greater

Are there new guidelines for children's masks?

The CDC continues to recommend that all children ages two and up who are not fully vaccinated or up-to-date on vaccinations wear well-fitting face masks in indoor public spaces. As of right now, NIOSH-approved masks (like N95s) have not been tested on children.

Which face masks meet all of these guidelines?

While finding a face covering that actually meets this long list of standards may seem daunting, the CDC already has a list of which masks make the cut. The most widely available masks that check all of the boxes are KN95s, while the most common NIOSH-approved respirators are N95s.

What is the difference between KN95 masks and N95 masks?

A KN95 mask must be able to filter out at least 95% of air particles, per NBC Chicago. N95s also have a high filtration level and come in two types: those designed for industrial jobs and those meant for healthcare workers, according to the FDA.

The only difference between KN95s and N95s is their level of certification—otherwise, they function similarly.

How often can you reuse N95 masks?

While all FDA-cleared N95 masks are labeled as "single-use," you can reuse N95 masks depending on how you wear them. Masks that are worn for short periods of time are fine to reuse, according to The Washington Post.

But if you're wearing a mask all day—and talking and sweating in it—then that mask may not be reusable. Currently, the CDC recommends that healthcare workers only reuse N95 masks up to five times before replacing them.

Some experts suggest keeping a few N95 masks in rotation. Allowing a mask to dry out for 24 to 48 hours allows any pieces of the COVID-19 virus (or other viruses) to die off, The Washington Post reported. But after a few uses, you should still switch new masks into your rotation.

Basically: Replace your N95 after a few uses, or when it has become wet or otherwise soiled.

How can you spot a fake N95 mask?

There has been a rise in counterfeit masks available for sale—but there's an easy way to make sure you're choosing an approved brand. Check the FDA's Emergency Use Authorization. If your mask is listed there, you're in the clear.

Just keep in mind that this emergency authorization was created to let healthcare workers know which masks they could wear instead of N95s, which used to be in short supply. The FDA then revoked this EUA when N95s became widely available for purchase. The list isn't updated anymore, but you can still use it as a buying guide, per NBC News.

Stay tuned for more updates from the CDC.

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