The best N95 mask brands of 2022, according to CDC and NIOSH guidelines

With new COVID-19 recommendations being released, which seems almost daily, making decisions about how and when to mask up can be confusing. Inside or outside? Even if you are vaccinated? What if you also received a booster shot?

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

It may be time to re-evaluate the masks you use, whether disposable or reusable. Here’s everything you need to know, straight from the CDC:

When should I wear a mask?

The CDC now recommends anyone over the age of two wear a mask in indoor public spaces, including public transportation. And, anyone with a compromised 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 are in a crowded environment in an area with a high number of COVID-19 cases, it is a good idea to wear a mask. You may also want to wear one during activities that put you in close contact with people who are not 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 not sure what type of mask you should wear, you’re not alone. The new guidelines rank how well each type of face mask protects against COVID-19:

  • Loosely woven fabric masks offer the least protection.
  • Masks made of finely woven, multi-layered fabric provide better protection.
  • Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even greater protection.
  • Properly fitted, NIOSH-approved respirators (such as N95s) provide the best protection.

    The CDC also recommends layering a disposable surgical mask under a cloth mask for added protection and a better fit.

    “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There is no place for them in light of Omicron,” noted CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor. Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, the CNN Newsroom.

    “You should wear a KN95 or N95 mask” in public places, Wen added. (More on these masks in a second.)

    What kind of masks does the CDC recommend?

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

    Masks must be able to filter droplets from your 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, reducing the number of particles you inhale.

    Here’s what to look for:

    • Face masks can be disposable or reusable.
    • Your mask should cover your nose and mouth and fit snugly against your face and nose. There should be no 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 use.
    • And, the masks should be able to fit anyone over the age of two or be available in multiple sizes that will fit 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, NIOSH-compliant masks, called Workplace Performance, will also:

      • Have a filtration efficiency of 50% or more
      • Meet breathability standards
      • Have a leak rate of 5 or more

        According to the CDC, “leak rate is the number of particles outside the mask relative to the number inside the mask.” A higher leak rate number means fewer particles will escape from the edges of the mask.

        The CDC has a list of NIOSH-approved masks here, so you can be sure you’re buying a mask that meets all of the organization’s breathability and leak-rate standards.

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

        They include, in addition to the ASTM guidelines:

        • Filtration efficiency of at least 80%
        • Meet breathability standards
        • Have a leak rate of 10 or more

          Are there new guidelines for children’s masks?

          The CDC continues to recommend that all children age two and older who are not fully immunized or up-to-date on vaccinations wear properly fitting masks in indoor public spaces. Currently, 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 that long list of standards can seem daunting, the CDC already has a list of masks that make the cut. The most widely available masks that tick all 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 at least 95% of air particles, for example NBC Chicago. N95s also have a high level of filtration and come in two types: those designed for industrial work and those intended for healthcare workers, according to the FDA.

          The only difference between KN95s and N95s is their level of certification – otherwise they operate the same.

          How often can you reuse N95 masks?

          While all FDA-approved N95 masks are labeled as “single use,” you can reuse N95 masks depending on how you wear them. Masks worn for short periods can be reused, depending on The Washington Post.

          But if you wear a mask all day – and you talk and sweat in it – then that mask may not be reusable. Currently, the CDC recommends healthcare workers only reuse N95 masks up to five times before replacing them.

          Some experts suggest keeping a few N95 masks on rotation. Letting a mask dry for 24-48 hours allows any bits of the COVID-19 virus (or other viruses) to die off, Jhe washington To post reported. But after a few uses, you still need to switch new masks into your rotation.

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

          How to spot a fake N95 mask?

          There’s been an increase in counterfeit face masks available for sale, but there’s an easy way to make sure you’re choosing an approved brand. Check the FDA emergency use authorization. If your mask is listed there, you’re in the clear.

          Just keep in mind that this emergency clearance was created to inform healthcare workers of the masks they could wear in place of N95s, which were once in short supply. The FDA later revoked this EUA when N95s became widely available for purchase. The list is no longer being updated, but you can still use it as a buying guide, for NBC News.

          Stay tuned for more updates from the CDC.

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