A medical expert weighs in on what to buy, what to avoid, and a simple test you should know about.

By Brigitt Earley
January 07, 2021
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This year's must have accessory is one nobody would have expected: the face mask. No, not the face mask you don on self-care Sunday or the one you slip on to hit the slopes. We're talking about face coverings—the masks that help protect you and those around you from germs and viruses like COVID-19. Though inherently different from your other favorite accessories, there are some important characteristics to look for when shopping for the right one. 

Credit: Drazen Zigic / Getty Images

What kind of face mask is best?

Selecting the right type of face mask is essential. The top three most effective face masks are fitted N95, surgical masks, and cotton/poly or poly/pro, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, an internist and gastroenterologist in New York City. "Out of those three, medical-grade N95 masks—exhalation valve or not—have proven to be the most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, but due to limited resources, the CDC does not recommend the general public to wear these and instead, save them for health care professionals." 

Surgical masks are the second most effective, are single-use only, and are made to protect the wearer's nose and mouth from contact with sprays, droplets, and splashes that may contain germs, Dr. Sonpal explains. They also filter out large air particles. Another good option aside from masks intended for medical professionals is a mask made from two layers of cotton and one synthetic material layer, he says.

Are there any face masks you should avoid?

"The two least effective masks are bandanas and gaiters," says Dr. Sonpal. "The neck gaiters are the worst offenders and should not be considered safe to protect against COVID. Unfortunately, investigators with Duke University also found that neck gaiters provide no protection against COVID-19, and that wearing them may be worse than wearing no face covering at all to prevent infection."

Once you know what kind of mask to buy, consider the size.

"Wearing the correct size mask is essential for effective comfort and filtration," says Dr. Sonpal. Unfortunately, though, unlike most things we purchase to wear on our body, there's no correlation between common body measurements that link to a face's mask size. Purchasing a mask in a different size will depend on the individual vendor you purchase from, and many big-box retailers only sell "one size fits all" masks. As a result, you'll have to do a little bit of trial and error to find the right mask. 

Not sure your mask fits just right? There are a number of signs that your mask doesn't fit correctly.

It doesn't sit snugly on your face.

A mask that fits properly should be worn from the bridge of your nose to under the chin for maximum protection. "Wearing a mask under your chin as a 'chin strap' is useless, since your nose is exposed," says Dr. Sonpal. There shouldn't be any gaps, and the sides of the mask should sit flat against your cheeks. If you need to make your mask tighter, shorten the ear loops for a closer fit, says Dr. Sonpal. You can do this by tying a knot in each ear loop or twisting the ear straps around your ears twice. 

There are air pockets.

"If there are any gaps for air particles to get through, that makes the wearer susceptible to bacteria and germs, and you could be spreading your germs to others unknowingly," the pro says. If your mask is leaking air—especially around the bridge of the nose for a nasal or full-face mask—it's time to try a different mask size, says Dr. Sonpal. 

You have to constantly adjust it.

Your mask should also sit comfortably on the nose without having to constantly readjust it. As a general rule of thumb, those with smaller faces and heads should consider a face mask with straps that can be tightened to fit snugly on your face, which will help you avoid any constant touching, says Dr. Sonpal. 

You can blow out a flame.

"If you want to do a simple test to see if your mask is effective, hold a cigarette lighter in front of your face while wearing your mask. If you can blow out the lighter through your mask, that mask is not effective," Dr. Sonpal suggests.

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