Types of masks for coronavirus prevention: key points to know

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on October 22, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


While physical contact still poses a potential risk for transmission of the novel coronavirus, the primary mode of transmission remains respiratory droplets from those with the virus. Whenever you talk, sneeze, cough, or simply breathe, you release droplets from your mouth and nose. If you are sick, viruses can travel on these droplets.

Because of the way coronavirus transmission works, widespread use of face masks has been recommended by the CDC and the medical and scientific community. But what type of mask for coronavirus prevention is best? Here, we’ll take a look at the different types of masks that can be worn—so read on.


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1) Surgical masks

Surgical or medical masks are loose-fitting, disposable face coverings. They are easily the lightest in weight on this list, but they are highly effective at filtering out larger particles in the air when worn properly. Surgical masks are tested for their filtration efficiency (both in terms of particulate and bacteria), fluid resistance, flammability, and biocompatibility. Along with larger particles, surgical masks can effectively inhibit any splashes, sprays, and splatters that could carry the coronavirus. These masks can also reduce the amount of your own respiratory droplets that make it into the surrounding environment when you cough, sneeze, or even talk.

However, surgical masks are not designed with a tightly-fitting seal around the mouth and nose, meaning that some viral particles from an infected person could potentially make their way through the sides of the face cover.

You also generally should not use surgical masks more than once. Once they are damaged, soiled, or get wet—or if you otherwise have trouble breathing through them—you should remove and discard the mask and put on a new one.

2) Cloth masks

The easiest and most accessible type of facial covering, cloth masks are any basic cloth covering, usually made from cotton, for the mouth and nose (such as a simple handkerchief over the mouth and nose). Cloth masks don’t inherently have significant filtration abilities—though some homemade masks have filters sewn into them—but they function as a basic physical barrier that blocks the transmission of respiratory droplets whenever the wearer breathes, talks, sneezes, or coughs—while simultaneously reducing the risk of airborne droplets reaching the nose or mouth.

3) N95 respirator masks

N95 masks are among the most effective face masks for blocking coronavirus transmission. These masks are a type of respirator fitted with the unique N95 filter. The filter removes particles from the air that passes through it. The mask gets its N95 designation from the studies that suggest it can filter out 95 percent of small particles in the air (as small as 0.3 microns in diameter).

This is possible thanks to the unique design of the filter, made up of a dense network of filaments, as well as a face seal that blocks viral particles from entering through the mask’s outer edges: unlike other masks on this list, N95 respirator masks (which include surgical N95 respirator masks) are designed to form an airtight seal around the mouth and nose. This prevents any air from leaking in or out, but it can also cause some discomfort, especially for those who have to wear the mask for long periods of time.

Although N95 masks are technically available to the public, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you do not use this kind of mask unless you are a healthcare worker in a healthcare setting. That’s because supplies for N95 masks are limited, and they are critical gear for healthcare workers (N95 masks are an example of personal protective equipment, or PPE).

What about masks with a valve?

While masks do not actually have any effect on your heart rate, comfort is one of the biggest issues with people concerned with wearing a mask. Many have thus turned to masks (both cloth and N95 variations) with one-way valves.

It’s true that these valves improve comfort and reduce heat buildup for the wearer, but they also defeat half the purpose of wearing a mask. While these masks do protect you from breathing in germs, you are still exhaling any potential germs through that valve. That means that even with the mask, you could be exposing everyone around you to the virus. This becomes even more of a problem as the existence of widespread asymptomatic COVID-19 cases has been established.

Wearing a mask properly

When considering what type of mask for coronavirus prevention is best, it’s important to know that no mask is effective unless you use it properly. With that in mind, here are some general tips and guidelines for using your mask:

  • Wash your hands before putting on your mask and after taking it off.
  • Make sure you place the mask completely over your nose and mouth. Do not uncover your nose.
  • Do not touch your mask when you wear it. If you do, make sure you wash your hands.
  • Only handle the mask by the ear loops.
  • If your mask ever becomes wet or dirty, swap it out for a clean one.
  • Wash cloth masks by hand with soap and water or throw it in the laundry with your usual load.
  • Don’t share face masks.

(Related: Planning to hop on a flight soon? Prepare by reading up on key tips about coronavirus and travel.)

One note to keep in mind is that face masks are not a substitute for good social distancing practices. Combining a face covering with social distancing is one of the best ways to help reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission throughout your community.


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References:

1. How COVID-19 Spreads. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

2. Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus. US Food & Drugs Administration. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

3. N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, and Face Masks. US Food & Drugs Administration. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

4. COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? Print. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

5. Considerations for Wearing Masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

6. Which type of face mask is most effective against COVID-19?. Loma Linda University Health. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

7. Qian Y, Willeke K, Grinshpun SA, Donnelly J, Coffey CC. Performance of N95 respirators: filtration efficiency for airborne microbial and inert particles. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J. 1998;59(2):128-132. doi:10.1080/15428119891010389

8. NIOSH-Approved N95 Particulate Filtering Facepiece Respirators. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

9. Zhou SS, Lukula S, Chiossone C, Nims RW, Suchmann DB, Ijaz MK. Assessment of a respiratory face mask for capturing air pollutants and pathogens including human influenza and rhinoviruses [published correction appears in J Thorac Dis. 2018 Aug;10(8):E676-E677]. J Thorac Dis. 2018;10(3):2059-2069. doi:10.21037/jtd.2018.03.103

10. How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

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