Types of Masks and How Effective They Are

Medically Reviewed By Chris Young, DNP, RN, NE-BC, NPD
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have recommended the use of face coverings for the past 2 years. Each type of mask has its own effectiveness level and best use. You should choose the type of mask that is best for you and the situation you are in.

Different types of masks hanging on a hook
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The CDC, WHO, and other public health officials have recommended wearing face masks to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. People are now wearing many different types of face coverings.

The CDC’s recommendations for face coverings include cloth masks, procedure masks, and respirators. In many cases, mask choice depends on availability. In other words, people tend to use what they have. However, each type of mask has a different level of effectiveness.

This article discusses the different types of masks and their effectiveness in containing droplets that spread from coughs, sneezes, and conversations. 

Bandanas

Man wearing a bandana on his face
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A bandana is a triangular or square piece of cloth that is often worn as a head or neck covering. Tying a bandana over your mouth and nose is one way to keep dust and other particles out of your respiratory system.

Bandanas provide some protection against droplets and cough- or sneeze-related spray. Without any kind of nose or mouth covering, droplets can spray more than 8 feet (ft), according to research from Florida Atlantic University. Wearing a bandana can decrease that to less than 4 ft. 

Cloth masks

Woman putting on a cloth mask
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Research suggests that cloth masks are at least somewhat effective at preventing the spread of airborne particles. When worn properly and with the right amount of layers, they are an effective option for a face covering. For cloth masks to work well, they should have three layers.

According to the WHO, whether you choose to make your own cloth mask or buy one, you should make sure the layers include:

  • an inner layer of absorbent material, such as cotton
  • a middle layer of nonabsorbent, non-woven material, such as polypropylene
  • an outer layer of nonabsorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend

Research suggests that a three-layer knitted cotton mask can block an average of 26.5% of particles, while a two-layer nylon mask with a filter and nose bridge can block an average of 79% of particles. Other types of masks average somewhere in between.

The CDC recommends that you wear cloth masks with:

  • a proper fit over your nose, mouth, and chin
  • fabric that blocks out light when brought up to a light source
  • multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
  • a nose wire

The CDC also states that you should not wear cloth masks that have:

  • wet or dirty material
  • gaps around the sides of the face or nose
  • single-layer fabric
  • exhalation valves or other openings

View our coronavirus resource list here.

Disposable procedure masks

Woman wearing a surgical mask
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Disposable procedure masks, or surgical masks, are made of a combination of paper and plastics.

When worn properly, procedure masks can help block out large droplets, splashes, and sprays that contain germs. However, they are not typically as effective at blocking out the tiny particles in the air that are generated by talking, breathing, coughing, and sneezing.

For maximum protection, the CDC recommends wearing procedure masks that have:

  • a proper fit around your nose, mouth, and chin
  • multiple layers
  • a nose wire

The CDC also states that you should not wear a procedure mask if there are any gaps around the side of your nose or face or if it is wet or dirty.

Tips for ensuring better-fitting disposable procedure masks and extra protection by combining them with cloth masks include:

  • wearing two masks: a cloth mask with a procedure mask underneath
  • combining either your cloth mask or procedure mask with a fitter or brace
  • using masks that attach behind your head and neck with either elastic bands or ties
  • folding or tucking the unneeded material of the cloth mask under the edges of a disposable procedure mask

Barrier face coverings

Man wearing a face barrier covering
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According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), barrier face coverings are products worn to specifically cover the nose and mouth for the purpose of providing source control and a certain degree of particle filtration. These masks can help reduce the number of particles you inhale.

Barrier face coverings are not considered a suitable replacement for N95 respirators or other filtering facepiece respirators. Those respirators are designed to provide respiratory protection to the wearer. Barrier face coverings are also not a replacement for procedure or surgical masks, as those are designed to provide a fluid barrier as well as protection from particulate material.

Barrier face coverings are often made from different nonflammable materials. However, for something to be defined as a barrier face covering, it must meet the recommendations for particulate filtration, airflow, resistance, and leakage as described by the ASTM F3502-21.

Neck gaiters

Woman wearing a neck gaiter
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Outdoors enthusiasts often have neck gaiters, which are essentially tubes of fabric worn around the neck that can be pulled up or down, as needed, to protect the face and neck. These can be used as mouth and nose coverings, and they may provide some protection against the spread of the most recent coronavirus.

Although experts suggest that some kind of face covering is better than no covering at all, studies indicate that neck gaiters may offer very little protection in comparison with other types of masks.

Visit our coronavirus hub here.

N95, KN95, and other respirators

Man wearing a N95 face covering
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N95 respirators are designed to fit closely over your face and offer highly efficient filtration of airborne particles.

They protect the person wearing the mask because they filter out 95% of airborne particles. The other masks on this list are intended to protect others around you from your respiratory droplets.

The CDC states that cloth and disposable masks also offer different levels of protection.

The CDC also recommends that respirators marked specifically as “surgical” N95 should be reserved for use by healthcare professionals. There are types of N95 respirators that are readily available — just check they are National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved and not labeled as “surgical.”

KN95 respirators are made to international standards. They are also rated to filter out 95% of very small particles. However, the CDC suggests making sure that they meet the quality standards needed. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, it was found that 60% of KN95 respirators were of poor quality.

N95 respirators are the most widely available NIOSH-approved respirators. KN95 respirators are also widely available, but you should use these with caution.

Other NIOSH-approved respirators include:

  • N99
  • N100
  • P95
  • P99
  • P100
  • R95
  • R99
  • R100

These offer the same, if not better, protection than N95 respirators.

Summary

The CDC, WHO, and other health organizations have recommended the use of face coverings for some time now. There are many different options when it comes to types of masks and face coverings.

Each type of mask has a different level of effectiveness when it comes to protecting the wearer from airborne particles. When choosing a mask or face covering, you should be sure that it fits properly and is clean and dry.

You can refer to the CDC website for updated information on the effectiveness of different types of masks, face coverings, and respirators.

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Medical Reviewer: Chris Young, DNP, RN, NE-BC, NPD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.