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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has frequently updated its face mask guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals as circumstances around the pandemic continue to change. An increasing number of Americans are getting their first or second dose of a Covid vaccine every day, but cases are currently rising across the country, causing some areas to reinforce face mask mandates regardless of vaccination status. And in addition to the FDA granting full approval to Pfizer’s Covid vaccine, U.S. health officials recently announced a plan to begin offering vaccine booster shots in September, citing evidence that protection against Covid infection is waning as the Delta variant continues to spread.
After the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn't need to wear masks in most indoor or outdoor settings in May, concerns over Covid variants caused the organization to update its guidance in July. The CDC now recommends fully vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission. But the organization’s guidelines are not mandates — it is up to states and cities, as well as businesses, schools and other public spaces, to make their own rules for who has to wear a face mask in different situations.
Medical experts continue to urge people to arm themselves against Covid by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing their hands frequently, regularly applying hand sanitizer and maintaining physical distance when necessary. But because the CDC’s guidance is constantly in flux, it can be hard to remember the most up-to-date advice regarding when to wear a mask and which ones to buy. To help you keep track, we broke down the latest CDC face mask guidance and recommendations for people who are fully vaccinated. We also included a list of reader-favorite masks you might want to have on hand at this point in the pandemic.
SKIP AHEAD Masks to keep on hand during the pandemic
How to buy a face mask, according to CDC guidelines
At the beginning of the pandemic, people scrambled to find face masks to protect themselves — some even turned to making their own or using bandanas. But over the last year and a half, there’s been an influx of face masks on the market from large retailers and small businesses alike, all in varying styles and sizes. We now have more choices when it comes to which face mask to buy, but not all masks are created equal. For example, experts previously told us that KN95 masks offer the most non-medical grade protection for kids and adults, while neck gaiters should really only be considered for outdoor use or in a pinch.
If you want to be sure that your mask performs at a consistent level to prevent the spread of Covid, the CDC recommends buying one that’s designed, tested and labeled to meet a specific standard. KN95 and N95 masks fall into this category, as do surgical masks. And reusable cloth masks can, too. In February, ASTM International, a voluntary standard-setting organization, released the F3502 Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings, which helps establish specific requirements for mask design and performance. Brands and manufacturers can take their face masks to a lab to be tested against ASTM’s standards. If a mask passes the tests, it can be labeled with the ASTM standard, which signals to shoppers that it meets high levels of efficacy.
To help you evaluate masks while shopping, the CDC has created a list of face mask features to look for in general. It suggests you buy masks that:
- Have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
- Completely cover the nose and mouth
- Fit snugly against the side of your face and under your chin and nose, leaving no gaps
- Equip an adjustable nose wire to prevent air from leaking out
The CDC also says you should avoid masks that:
- Are made of fabric that makes it hard to breathe, like vinyl
- Equip exhalation valves or vents
- Are intended for healthcare workers, like N95 respirators
Because we now have access to so many different types of masks, the CDC also provides dos and don’ts for buying specific face coverings. It provides suggestions for how to improve the fit and performance of your mask, too.
As for gaiters, the CDC says they can be used as an adequate face covering so long as they have two layers or can be folded to make two layers. Face shields, however, are currently not recommended as standalone protection — evaluation of face shields is ongoing and their effectiveness against Covid particles is unknown, the CDC says. For people with facial hair, which the CDC says can impact how a mask fits, the organization recommends using a mask fitter or brace, or double masking.
The CDC also includes specific considerations for children. The organization says kids masks should be made specifically for children to help ensure a proper fit. A good mask will fit snugly over the nose and mouth and under the chin so there are no gaps. According to the organization, kids face masks should not be worn by children under the age of 2.
Masks to keep on hand during the pandemic
Now that so many different brands and retailers sell face masks, you have a plethora of options to choose from. Here are some masks you might want to keep at home to protect yourself or those you’re living with against the coronavirus — we filtered these down to the most purchased items we’ve covered based on recommendations from the CDC and medical experts.
Most purchased KN95 mask: WWDOLL KN95 Face Mask
Many KN95 masks are either sold out or on backorder right now — we’ve recently seen a surge in search for them, as well as an uptick in online orders. These KN95 masks are the most popular option among Shopping readers. Their manufacturer is FDA-registered and listed on the FDA’s list of KN95 models approved via its now-revoked Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). The masks come in a pack of 25 and are designed with five layers of fabric. They also feature elastic ear loops as well as an adjustable nose bridge.
Most purchased kids KN95 mask: Powecom Children’s-Sized KN95 Mask
The most purchased kids KN95 mask we’ve covered is also from WWDOLL, but it’s currently unavailable. This option from Powecom offers similar features, like an adjustable nose bridge, multi-layer design and earloops. It’s about 15 percent smaller than its standard KN95 model to fit kids’ smaller faces, and it’s specifically designed for children over 4 years old. The mask’s manufacturer was formerly featured on the FDA’s EUA list. Masks come in packs ranging from 10 to 10,000 items.
Most purchased disposable mask: PM Performotor Disposable Face Masks
Sold in a pack of 50, these disposable face masks are designed with three layers of non-woven fiber fabric to filter out small particles while also providing breathability. They have an adjustable nose bridge and come in colors like Black, Green, Orange, Purple and Red.
Most purchased kids mask: Dr. Talbot’s Disposable Kid’s Face Mask
Designed for kids ages 6 to 12, these disposable face masks feature three layers of fabric, soft ear loops and an adjustable nose clip. The masks come in multiple kid-friendly patterns like hearts and camouflage.
Most purchased reusable mask: Onzie Mindful Masks
Onzie’s reusable masks are made from multiple layers of its performance fabric, which is constructed from the brand’s upcycled activewear material. Masks come in a pack of two in assorted patterns and have spandex ear loops. They’re machine-washable, and you can purchase them with or without a filter pocket. Onzie also offers kids masks.
Most purchased gaiter: Matek Gaiter Face Cover
The CDC says that neck gaiters are an acceptable type of face mask so long as they have at least two layers or are folded into two layers — however, medical experts told us that they would not encourage the use of gaiters with the Delta virus going around. If you choose to wear one, readers like this option, which boasts an adjustable strap in the back to customize its fit and a double layer pocket for a filter. The machine-washable gaiter also features an adjustable nose bridge and comes in three colors: Black, Navy Blue and White.
When to wear a face mask
Generally, face mask mandates vary by state. However, cities and towns are now enforcing their own mandates depending on the level of transmission in the area, as are public spaces like schools, office buildings, restaurants and gyms. Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently extended a federal requirement that travelers must wear masks on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation — regardless of vaccination status — traveling into, within or out of the U.S. through January 2022. Travelers also must wear masks inside transportation hubs like airports, bus stations and train stations.
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of a two-dose vaccination series like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after receiving a single-dose vaccine like Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine. In some parts of the country, like in New York and San Francisco, being fully vaccinated is now your ticket into certain public spaces like restaurants and gyms, and grants you the ability to attend certain events like indoor concerts. An increasing number of companies and schools across the country are also requiring proof of vaccination in order to return to work or in-person classes.
The CDC released its first set of recommendations for fully vaccinated people in March. Since then, the recommendations have been updated a few times, largely due to concerns over Covid variants. Recommendations include guidance about isolation, quarantine and testing, traveling and, of course, masking.
Below is the CDC’s general masking guidance for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, both indoors and outdoors.
CDC indoor masking guidance
Fully vaccinated individuals
Although risk of Covid infection, severe disease and death is reduced for fully vaccinated individuals, the CDC says a small proportion of infections do occur — and research shows that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant specifically can transmit it to others. Because of this, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in indoor settings in areas with substantial or high community transmission to reduce their risk of getting sick with and spreading Covid.
Of course, fully vaccinated individuals may choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of community transmission, especially if they live with anyone who is unvaccinated, immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease. As for schools, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
People who are not fully vaccinated and over the age of 2 should wear a mask in indoor public places, according to the CDC.
CDC outdoor masking guidance
The CDC says the risk of Covid transmission outdoors is minimal for both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Thus, the organization says you do not need to wear a mask in outdoor settings, regardless of vaccination status. But in areas with high numbers of Covid cases, the CDC suggests it might be prudent to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings and if you’re participating in activities where you’ll be in close contact with unvaccinated individuals.