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Confused About Face Masks? Here’s the Latest

Our doctors have what you need to know about N95, KN95, surgical or cloth masks

What to look for in a mask
Masks remain an important tool in preventing and stopping the spread of COVID-19. LVHN providers have some tips on how to choose the best mask and make sure you are wearing it correctly.

Face masks have been part of our lives for almost two years. Many of us have experimented and found masks that are comfortable, however, recent studies show that the common cloth masks many people use may not offer enough protection against COVID-19. This is especially true considering new and more contagious variants of COVID-19 like omicron.

Good, Better, Best Face Masks with types

While the type of face mask people wear may be in question, there is no doubt that face masks are still important. “Face masks are kind of like an umbrella. You should always carry one in the event that you need it. Because we are currently seeing very high numbers of COVID cases in our area, everyone should be wearing a mask in public indoor settings,” says Alex Benjamin, MD, Chief Infection Control and Prevention Officer, Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN).

What to look for in a mask

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 2 and up wear a mask in all public indoor settings. Because omicron is so contagious, some experts are recommending you upgrade your cloth masks to an N95 surgical mask. “The bottom line is that any mask is better than no mask, however, there are varying levels of protection. A surgical mask is better than a cloth mask and a KN95 mask offers better protection than either. The most effective mask available is the N95,” says provider Jodi Lenko, MD,  with LVPG Family and Internal Medicine–Alliance Drive, and Vice Chair, Department of Medicine, LVHN.

If you don’t have access to a surgical mask, KN95 mask or N95 mask, the CDC says cloth masks are still an option. Because there are so many cloth masks available, it can be daunting to find one that offers the best protection. The CDC currently recommends cloth face masks:

  • DO have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • Do have a nose wire to prevent air leaking from the top of the mask
  • DO completely cover your nose and mouth

The CDC recommends avoiding the following types of masks:

  • DON’T get masks made of material that make it difficult to breathe
  • DON’T wear masks that have exhalation valves or vents

The CDC does not recommend neck gaiters and face shields as they are less effective.

Proper mask care

According to Lenko, how you wear your mask is as important as the type of mask you wear. “Masks should fit snugly across your face and completely cover your nose and mouth,” she says.

The CDC emphasizes the importance of mask upkeep.

  • Disposable masks should only be worn once and disposed of immediately after they are worn.
  • You can wash reusable masks with your regular laundry or by hand.
  • Reusable masks should be washed as soon as they become dirty, or at least once a day.
  • If your mask becomes wet or soiled from saliva, makeup or other liquids, take it off and place it in a plastic bag until you can wash it.
  • Wash wet or soiled masks as soon as possible to prevent them from becoming moldy.
  • You can store clean masks while you are eating or drinking by putting them in a dry, breathable bag (like a paper bag or mesh bag).
  • Make sure to only touch the ear loops when taking off your mask, and wash or sanitize your hands after taking off your mask or putting it back on.
Michelle Rojas, RN, Emergency Medicine, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Hazleton


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