Face Masks 101: The Different Types + How They Work

… and which should you be wearing to slow the COVID-19 pandemic?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put face masks in the spotlight. After all, people in the United States—except for those working in health care or construction—aren’t used to covering their faces with masks during their daily lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in early April 2020 that everyone should wear some type of face covering to slow the spread of COVID-19, but there’s a lot of confusion about who should wear what—and how the different types work. 

There are two key types of face masks worn by healthcare workers: N-95 respirators and surgical masks.

The N-95 respirator is the best protector against respiratory infections. It gets its name because it filters out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. It also fits snugly around the edges to reduce leakage of infectious particles into the airway.

This makes N-95 respirators ideal for healthcare workers who are caring for patients with highly contagious diseases (as well as construction workers trying to keep out harmful microparticles from wood, coal, etc.). It protects the wearer from breathing in infectious droplets and getting sick themselves.

Surgical masks fit more loosely, so air can leak in and out on the edges. They also don’t filter out small particles like the N-95 masks do. Their main purpose is to be an effective barrier against large particles. In the context of a contagious disease like COVID-19, it’s a less ideal option for healthcare workers, since they can still breathe in small respiratory droplets from infected patients.

As the name implies, surgical masks are great for doctors to wear during surgery. It protects the patient from the surgeon’s respiratory emissions, as well as protecting the surgeon from any splashes or bodily sprays. 

For the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC currently recommends wearing cloth face coverings, which simply refers to using fabric to cover the nose and mouth to provide a little extra protection against infectious particles. This can help slow the spread of COVID-19 while saving N-95 respirators for healthcare workers, who face more exposure to the coronavirus.

“Cloth face coverings” is a vague name for a reason: You don’t necessarily need to go out and shop for masks. You could simply cover your mouth and nose with bandanas, scarves, or an old T-shirt. Alternatively, you can sew a cloth face covering to mimic the surgical mask shape.

The exact effectiveness of cloth face coverings is still unknown, but it’s believed that cloth face coverings—like surgical masks—can provide a barrier against larger respiratory droplets to keep the wearer from spreading an infection to others. Because many people may be asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, cloth face coverings could help reduce the spread of the disease.

Recommendations about face masks may change depending on supplies and infection rates. Whenever masks are recommended, make sure you know what kind—since each type of face mask has different purposes. Learn more about face mask recommendations for the general public here.