A more contagious strain of COVID is spreading in the U.S. Should you double up on face masks?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 20: People wear face masks at The Mall in Central Park on December 20, 2020 in New York City. The coronavirus pandemic has caused long-term repercussions throughout the tourism and entertainment industries, including temporary and permanent closures of historic and iconic venues, costing the city and businesses billions in revenue. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
People wear face masks at The Mall in Central Park in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

The more contagious strain of the coronavirus — first identified in the U.K. in September 2020 — has been detected in at least 20 states in the U.S. so far, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 122 COVID-19 cases caused by the variant. The CDC predicts the new coronavirus strain will grow rapidly in 2021, and become “the predominant variant in March.”

So should you double up on face masks for added protection against the more contagious strain of the virus?

“The short answer is ... no,” Dr. Dean Winslow, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s clearly here,” Winslow says, referring to the strain. “It does not produce more severe disease, but … it does appear to be more transmissible.”

According to the CDC: “Currently, there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death. However, an increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths.”

Dr. Richina Bicette, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, agrees with Winslow that doubling up on masks isn’t necessary for most people. “Nothing needs to be done differently,” Bicette tells Yahoo Life. “The same risk-reduction strategies that have been discussed since the beginning of the pandemic still apply. Any mask is better than no mask, but a medical-grade surgical mask is the best if it is available. Wash your hands, do not gather in groups and socially distance yourself from people who do not live in the same household as you.”

Which masks are best

N95 masks offer greater protection against the coronavirus than surgical or cloth masks. But a fit test is required to ensure a proper seal, and these respirators are only meant to be used once, per the CDC. “One of the big advantages of N95 is the weave of the material — it’s tighter than in a regular mask,” explains Winslow. “But because they do fit so tightly, those elastic bands really compress it back on the face.”

Surgical and cloth face masks, on the other hand, are often easier to wear and find. “Cloth masks and surgical face masks do provide at least some degree of protection for the person wearing it,” says Winslow, along with protecting others. “And they’re a lot more comfortable than wearing an N95 mask.”

Bicette says, “If you are wearing a medical-grade surgical mask, you only need to wear one. If you are wearing a homemade mask, per CDC recommendations, it should be multilayer — at least 3 layers — and made of material with a high thread count.”

Placing a filter inside of a cloth mask is another good option. But Bicette points out that “all filters are not made equally and there is no centralized quality control verifying the size of the particles that each filter protects against.”

A small 2020 study in which researchers tested different types of masks suggests adding a filter as the third layer or doubling up a cotton mask with a surgical face mask may offer better protection against the virus. In the study, the researchers recommended wearing a “three-layer mask consisting of two outer layers of a very flexible, tightly woven fabric and an inner layer consisting of a material designed to filter out particles.” According to the study, inner filter layer options include doubling up with a good surgical mask or using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter insert or a MERV 14 or higher mask filter insert.

The study authors stated that “this approach produces a good-fitting mask with high performance in both directions,” meaning for the wearer and for others, filtering out 74 to 90 percent of particles.

But the decision to double up on masks comes down to “individual comfort,” says Bicette. “This will vary from person to person. I have no difficulty when wearing multiple masks in the hospital.”

That said, any type of mask is better than nothing. “Something is better than nothing,” one of the study’s authors, Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times. “Even the simplest cloth mask of one layer of material blocks half or more of aerosols we think are important to transmission. If you go to a tighter weave and more layers, you’ll get even better performance.”

How to ensure a proper fit and keep masks clean

How well your mask fits also determines how effective it is. “If your mask is loose fitting and does not securely cover your nose and mouth, you are increasing your risk of spreading the virus and also catching the virus,” says Bicette. Masks with nose bridge wires can help close gaps along the top of the mask, while tying a knot to shorten the elastic loops of a surgical face mask can help close gaps along the sides of the face (watch the hack here).

Bicette adds: “Make sure your mask fits snugly over your nose and mouth and does not fall down when you talk or turn your head. If the mask is under your nose, it defeats the point of wearing one.”

How you remove your mask after wearing it is also important. “When removing or adjusting your mask, remove it by taking off the ear straps,” says Bicette. “Do not touch the front of your mask, if you can avoid it. Anytime you do touch your mask, immediately wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.”

The CDC doesn’t recommend reusing disposable surgical face masks. But some experts say you can reuse them by placing them in a clean paper bag or plastic baggie for up to 48 hours until any viral particles are no longer viable. Throw out disposable surgical masks once they become soiled or damaged in any way.

For cloth masks, be sure to keep them clean on a daily basis. The Mayo Clinic recommends regularly washing reusable cloth masks with soap and water by hand or in the washing machine. “Throw them in the washing machine with your clothes, and they perfectly decontaminated,” says Winslow.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.