With concerns about new Covid-19 variants across the country, many people are currently restocking their supply of face masks. And though face masks were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic, shoppers now have many options to choose from, like reusable cloth masks, disposable masks, respirators and even gaiters.
The most important thing to keep in mind, experts said, is that any mask is better than no mask at all. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respirators — among them N95 and KN95 face masks — offer more protection than cloth masks, though they stopped short of directly recommending one mask over another.
“While all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators provide the highest level of protection,” the CDC noted. (Most people use “mask” and “respirator” interchangeably, but when the CDC and medical professionals say “respirator,” they specifically mean specialized, fitted face coverings like N95s, KN95s and KF94s.)
In its guide to masks and respirators, the CDC further prioritized respirators above masks — with emphasis on a proper fit — and specified that they’re better than cloth products.
- Highest level of protection: Well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), including N95s
- Less protection than NIOSH-approved respirators: Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s
- Less protection than non-NIOSH respirators and surgical masks: Layered, finely woven products
- Least protection (but still better than not wearing a mask at all): Loosely woven cloth products
Despite respirators offering the most protection, some people don’t find this type of disposable face covering comfortable, like kids or those with smaller faces, for example. And since the CDC says that “it is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection,” you may opt for another disposable mask option instead, like a medical-grade or nonmedical-grade disposable mask.
If you’re trying to decide which type of disposable mask is right for you, we talked to experts about the differences between each option, who should wear them and how to shop for them. We focused on medical-grade and nonmedical-grade options — you can learn more about KN95 and N95 respirators in our respective guides. We also highlighted disposable masks for kids and adults based on guidance from our experts, the CDC and the FDA.
How to shop for disposable face masks
When it comes to disposable face masks, the CDC recommends wearing models that offer:
- A proper fit over your nose and mouth to prevent leaks
- Multiple layers of material — experts told us your mask should be at least two-ply, but three-ply is ideal
- A nose wire
- No exhalation valve
Beyond the CDC’s guidance, experts we spoke to said you can also look for masks that have an inner lining with moisture-wicking and antibacterial properties. They mentioned that you shouldn't sweat price points too much, as more expensive disposable masks don’t guarantee better protection.
Dr. Jay Woody, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a co-founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care, noted it’s important to remember that “while all surgical masks are considered face masks, not all face masks are considered surgical face masks.” When you’re shopping, check the label on the box to differentiate between medical-grade and nonmedical-grade to ensure you’re grabbing the right one for your needs.
Medical-grade disposable masks
Medical-grade disposable face masks are regulated by the FDA and must meet strict criteria in order to be considered medical devices. Medical-grade face masks are also referred to as surgical masks or medical procedure masks, according to the CDC. They are not the same thing as N95 respirators, which are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The FDA notes that the edges of surgical masks “are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.” The masks filter out large particles — which are bigger than very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs or sneezes — and protect the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with splashes or sprays that might contain germs, said Jeannie Kenkare, DO, chief medical officer and co-founder of Northeast-based PhysicianOne Urgent Care.
Experts we consulted didn’t specifically recommend medical-grade disposable face masks for the general public except for those in a high-risk category, which the World Health Organization defines as those over 60 or with underlying health conditions such as chronic respiratory disease, cancer or obesity. And unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, medical-grade disposable face masks are more readily available, so if you’re interested in purchasing them, you can find them at retailers like Amazon and Walmart or at pharmacies like CVS.
Medical-grade disposable face masks to buy
The FDA does not maintain a list of surgical mask suppliers. However, Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said to look for products that say they are ASTM Level 1, 2 or 3 on the package.
“This means the mask can filter out at least 95 percent of particles of all sizes, and at least 98 percent for Levels 2 and 3,” she said.
If you’re looking to purchase a medical-grade disposable mask, Marr said the difference among ASTM Levels 1, 2 and 3 “is probably not significant for everyday use, where fit is more important.” In other words, she said, a leaky surgical mask — one that fits your face poorly and has gaps along the sides and top — is not effective.
Since we don't test masks ourselves, we rely on expert guidance and our previous reporting about how to shop for masks. The CDC recommends anyone shopping for masks look for multiple layers and adjustable nose wires, and experts told us to ensure masks can be made to fit tightly against the face. The following highly rated face masks list features that align with our research.
These surgical masks come in a box of 50 and are designed with three layers of nonwoven fabric. They feature an adjustable nose bridge and earloops.
Built with three layers of fabric, these surgical masks have an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. They come in a box of 50 masks, and are also available in children’s sizes.
Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks
Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks look like surgical masks but are not regulated by the FDA, as they are not intended for use in medical settings, Kenkare said. She noted that “they come in many varieties and [are] of varying quality of fit and filtration.”
These disposable masks typically come in two- or three-layer builds. They’re a fine option for the public if they’re available in your area, said Dr. Ellen Turner, an infectious-diseases physician and adjunct professor at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Nonmedical-grade disposable face masks to buy
The CDC recommends masks with multiple layers and adjustable nose wires, and experts told us to ensure that masks can be made to fit tightly against the face. The following highly rated face masks — some of which appear in our previous coverage — list features that align with our research.
You can purchase CandyCare’s disposable face masks in packs of 25 to 2,000. They’re built with three layers of fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops.
CASETiFY’s disposable face masks feature three layers of fabric, and they’re latex-free and hypoallergenic. The masks have an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. The masks come in multiple colors like Mushroom (nude), Fern (dark green) and Cobalt (blue). Masks come in compostable packaging.
Available in packs of seven or 30, Evolvetogether’s disposable face masks are available in colors like Tokyo (gray), Amazonia (green) and Milan (black). They’re designed with three layers of fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. The masks come with two mask keepers, which you can use to store masks when you’re not wearing them. The masks’ packaging is made from biodegradable and recyclable materials.
These face masks come in Black, Blue and White. You can purchase them in packs of 50 to 1,000. They’re designed with three layers of nonwoven fabric, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops.
These face masks are constructed from three layers of nonwoven fabric and have an adjustable nose bridge and elastic ear loops. You can purchase them in sets of 50 or 100, as well as colors from Black to Pink. The masks also come in patterns andindividually wrapped options.
WeCare’s disposable face masks come individually wrapped. They’re made from three layers of nonwoven fabric and have an adjustable nose bridge. You can purchase packs of 50 masks in colors and prints like Black, Red and Jaguar.
WellBefore’s disposable face masks can be purchased with ear loops, adjustable ear loops or an adjustable head strap. They’re made from three layers of fabric and have an adjustable nose strip. The masks are available in Blue and Black, and you can order as few as 10 masks to over 1,000. Masks come individually wrapped.
How disposable masks work
Like reusable cloth face masks, disposable face masks protect those around the wearer by blocking virus particles from entering the air, thus decreasing the chance that someone infected with Covid will spread the virus, explained Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. To some extent, they also help shield what the wearer breathes in. And the masks can prevent wearers from touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, mouth or nose, said Woody.
Because nonmedical-grade disposable masks are not regulated by the FDA, there is no uniform design standard they follow, but most have at least two layers. Medical-grade masks, however, are regulated by the FDA and adhere to specific standards. The outer layer is typically water-repellent to protect against large droplets, the middle layer usually has an antibacterial filter and the inner layer is designed to absorb moisture from the breath and minimize skin irritation, explained Dr. Manisha Singal, a board-certified internal medicine physician and chief medical officer of Bridgepoint Hospital in Washington, D.C, where she serves as a critical care physician.
How to wear a disposable mask
No face mask will protect you or the people around you unless you wear it correctly. The CDC recommends making sure it completely covers your mouth and nose and fits tightly against your face to prevent gaps around the sides of the mask, nose and chin. You also should not wear any mask with exhalation valves or vents, according to the CDC.
All masks fit differently, and features like adjustable ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge help you improve the fit of your mask, as do mask fitters or braces, according to the CDC. Using a fitter or brace is especially a good idea for people with facial hair, which can make it difficult to achieve a tight fit.
Another way to improve the fit of certain face masks is to double-mask, or wear a disposable mask underneath a reusable cloth mask. It’s important to note that the CDC advises against double-masking while wearing respirators, and you should not wear two disposable masks.
Are disposable masks reusable?
What medical-grade face masks, nonmedical-grade face masks and respirators all have in common is that they’re designed to be single-use face coverings. That doesn’t actually mean you have to toss your mask after a single use, however. Depending on the mask and how long you wear it for, it can be worn multiple times if you remove and store it properly. Replace the disposable face mask if it becomes wet or visibly dirty. And as with all masks, be sure to properly remove them from your face: Take it off by the straps and wash your hands immediately afterward.
Why wear a face mask? Do face masks protect others against Covid or just the wearers?
To recommend when Americans should wear face masks, the CDC determines an area’s Covid-19 Community Level risk on a scale of low, medium or high. To do so, it analyzes how many Covid-related hospital beds are in use, hospital admissions and the total number of new Covid cases in that area. Each Covid-19 Community Level corresponds to a masking recommendation — suggested precautions increase alongside the level. To determine your area’s Covid-19 Community Level, use the CDC's Covid-19 county check.
The CDC’s order requiring masks on public transportation and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect, and many airlines also ended their mask mandates this spring. However, the CDC said it “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings,” despite being unable to enforce any rules. Before you use a specific public transportation system in your area, be sure to double-check its mask requirements as they can change at any time.
Experts have repeatedly stressed that masks help reduce the risk of viral transmission. One 2021 CDC study found that, between two properly masked or double-masked people, the risk of one giving the other a virus was cut by over 95 percent. Masking up also protects other people, as demonstrated in numerous studies like these gathered by the CDC.