While we hate to say it, the pandemic has made a swift and strong comeback — this time with the Omicron variant leading the charge — and there's likely to be another wave at some point in the future. In light of Omicron's high transmutability and contagiousness, the CDC has started recommending that we return to the habits we all engaged in toward the beginning of the pandemic, way back in early 2020. That includes limiting gatherings (especially indoors), social distancing and wearing face masks whenever we're around others. And yes, that recommendation includes those of us who are fully vaccinated and boosted. However, due to the seriousness of Omicron and the new information that has come to light, the kinds of masks we should be wearing have changed.
The pandemic is evolving with each variant of the COVID-19 virus that emerges, and that means the scientists and frontline medical workers who are fighting it are constantly learning more about it. At the beginning of the pandemic, this meant promoting the use of cloth face masks for the vast majority of the population — both due to a shortage of medical masks but also because of their relative success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and its variants at the time. Omicron, unfortunately, is a different beast, and because it is so contagious (and the medical mask shortage has been managed), the newest guidelines implore everyone, vaccinated or not, to don more protective surgical-grade disposable face masks. In fact, the CDC's latest guidelines suggest that reusable cloth masks are not nearly as protective as once thought and that everyone should be making the switch to alternatives, like N95s and KN95s, whenever possible.
We know this might sound like a scary prospect — one that probably comes with some confusion, hesitance and a lot of questions. How do I even begin to shop for CDC-recommended face coverings? How can I tell if the masks I'm buying are real and not cheap, fraudulent knock-offs? What's the difference between the available mask grades on the market? Am I even wearing my mask right? If you've asked yourself any or all of these questions, we're here to help. This guide will cover all of that and more. Plus, we're including some recommendations for certified disposable face masks you can buy right now.
Disclaimer: This guide reflects the most current guidelines as outlined by the CDC, as of February 3, 2022.
Types of Disposable Face Masks to Look for
Unfortunately, the CDC is not an international organization and, therefore, cannot account for face mask offerings outside of the United States. However, if you're an international reader, there are other governing bodies that have offered up equivalent protections. Using 3M's Respirator Class comparison chart, we've outlined those that most closely align with the CDC's present guidelines and most readily available in the US (for other internationally-certified options refer to the 3M chart). For more, you can see the CDC's approval list here. For further reading, the FDA has its own guide here. Keep in mind, the CDC is now suggesting that reusable cloth masks, like those made from cotton, should be looked at as a last resort and that the following options are preferred for better protection all-around.
At least as far as the United States is concerned, N95 masks are the standard for CDC-approved face coverings that will protect you best against the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne pathogens. This has not changed with the latest update to the CDC's guidelines. In fact, N95s are now at the top of the list of preferred masks, second to none. If you can find them, these are your best option. There are ratings higher than N95 (you can see them here), but N95 is the current, best baseline mask type as recommended by the CDC and protects against 95% of airborne particles.
Just as the name is remarkably similar, the performance of KN95 masks is roughly equivalent to N95s, with very little performance difference between the two (fractional differences, at best). The one major difference is that KN95 masks come from the Chinese rating system, whereas N95s are USA-specific regarding their rating. The one thing to look out for (which is outlined on this CDC page) is that something to the tune of 60 percent of KN95 masks available in the US are counterfeit — so you should either buy only from a reputable source you know you can trust or opt for an N95 option instead. Per the most current guidelines, KN95s are considered second only to N95s.
Made to meet the EN14683 standard, this is a mask classification common in the European Union and is considered appropriate for medical usage where there is a risk of exposure to bodily fluids, including the kinds of droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze. They are amongst the options deemed appropriate for COVID-19 exposure.
This offering comes from South Korea and is roughly equivalent to N95s, although they're designed for public use (rather than medical) and they lack the same certifications as their occupational counterparts. Still, these masks are said to be roughly 94 percent effective at filtering out particles in the air and readily available in the States.
How to Tell if a Face Mask Is Authentic
Unfortunately, the world is full of opportunists and people trying to make a quick buck, even if that means misleading people. This certainly hasn't changed with the emergence of the COVID pandemic. And that means there are a lot of masks that don't actually fit the CDC's recommendations. While it can be hard to navigate the thousands of options on the internet, there are a few things you can look for that will help ensure you're buying legitimate surgical-grade disposable face masks.
ASTM F3502 Rating
Short for the American Society for Testing and Materials, ASTM is an international "not-for-profit organization that provides a forum for the development and publication of international voluntary consensus standards for materials, products, systems and services." In laymen's terms, that means it sets rating requirements for a variety of products and practices to ensure that they are up to a specific quality. Regarding disposable face masks, those that meet both the CDC's current guidelines and those set by ASTM will feature a clearly-marked "ASTM F3502" or "ASTM F3502-21" (that "21" denotes the year) approval label.
Short for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH is actually a United States federal agency that's responsible for conducting research and making recommendations to help prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and more. As you might imagine, the U.S. government takes these workplace issues very seriously and, therefore, NIOSH criteria tend to be rather strict. In the case of disposable face masks, the organization offers two possible recommendations — "Workplace Performance" and "Workplace Performance Plus" — which both meet and mirror ASTM guidelines and require clear labeling for approved masks.
If you want to ensure that you have a mask that best meets the CDC's present guidelines, either or both of these label ratings will do the trick. However, labels are still relatively easy to counterfeit. As such, and if you want to be extra safe (which you should; it is a pandemic, after all), you can actually check the veracity of the label through NIOSH's Certified Equipment List (CEL, for short), using the included NIOSH TC approval number(s) from your mask's label or thumb through the full NIOSH-approved N95 list, and you'll instantly know whether you've got the real deal or a fake rip-off.
Though seemingly harder to verify than the above ratings, there are other certifications that qualify masks as being up to the current standards. According to the CDC, which can be seen on this Emergency Considerations PPE page, masks that have been given EU MDD Directive 93/42/EEC Category III or equivalent, EN 14683 Type II, IIR, ASTM F2100 minimum Level 1 or equivalent ratings are all approved for usage by medical professionals interacting directly with COVID-19 patients and, therefore, are protective for everyday usage, as well.
Now that you know what to look for, how the CDC's guidelines work and even how to properly wear your disposable face mask to ensure it's as effective as possible, the final step is finding the options that work best for you based on availability, budget and even style. The following disposable face masks are all readily available and meet the present criteria as outlined by the CDC.
Disclaimer: To the best of our knowledge, these masks all meet the standards set by the CDC, NIOSH, ASTM and/or some other similar governing and/or regulating body. However, with the number of counterfeits out there, we'd still suggest using your best judgment, being cautious and checking the veracity of the certifications via the available approval lists (here and here).
Why Can't I Keep Wearing My Cloth Face Masks?
First, it needs to be said that any mask is better than no mask — in the same way that any seatbelt (lap, shoulder, or even racing harness) is better than no seatbelt. If a cloth mask is your only option, wear it. However, due to the increased availability of NIOSH-approved masks, the contagiousness of the Omicron variant and new information that has come to light suggesting the gap in protection between cloth masks and higher-grade FDA-approved alternatives, the CDC has changed its recommendations to suggest that N95-rated masks (and others in the same class) are the best baseline option to protect against Omicron. That's not to say that alternatives don't offer any protection, just that N95s offer better protection by and large. So, you can keep wearing your cloth masks if you have no other option and/or in conjunction with a disposable N95. If you have the option, however, we highly recommend choosing an N95 or better as your primary, go-to face-covering.
How Your Mask Should Fit
Even the most well-built equipment can fail spectacularly if used incorrectly. That's especially true when it comes to COVID-certified disposable face masks; they're only going to work so long as you wear them correctly. Thankfully, the CDC also has recommendations regarding this process, as well. First, there's the organization's simplified Wearing a Mask page. And then there's the more comprehensive Your Guide to Masks page, which also includes other useful information like who should wear masks, how to pick them out, what not to do, etc.
Whichever resource you choose, the information is relatively consistent and can be broken down into the following relatively simple steps. First, sanitize your hands to ensure you aren't inadvertently spreading germs to your face. Then, put both loops over both of your ears. After that, make sure the mask is fully covering from the bridge of your nose down to the underside of your chin. The next step is to ensure the mask fits snugly, meaning there aren't any large, noticeable gaps at the top, bottom, or sides. And, lastly, you should make sure you can still breathe without struggling. Remember, these masks are meant to protect you, not suffocate you, and all CDC-approved masks should be breathable enough that you aren't struggling.
A Note on Beards: While we all love our facial hair, it will potentially impact the effectiveness of your mask, as it can prevent your mask from fitting as snugly as it should. At present, the CDC recommends trimming your beard close to your face and/or wearing a mask fitter or brace, which will help create a seal even with facial hair. If that's not an option, the CDC has also recommended wearing a disposable mask under a cloth one for added layers of protection.