Do you wear a face mask or don’t you? Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers guidance that if you live in a community with medium or high levels of Covid-19, you should continue to wear a well-fitting mask or respirator (you can check local levels here). However, the Kraken variant is still spreading, and colds and the flu have continued to circulate. Local authorities can require mask wearing too.
A good face mask is a critical tool in helping slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve been outfitting our kids and adapting our practices as new, science-based recommendations emerge. These are some of the masks, and masking practices, that I and other WIRED staff members are using. Keep a mask on, but remember to stay at home when possible, increase ventilation in indoor spaces, get tested regularly, and maintain at least a six-foot distance from others in public (preferably outdoors).
How We Pick Masks
The materials-testing organization ASTM International also recently published the first-ever manufacturing standards on what constitutes a good face covering in a workplace setting. Based on these guidelines, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health now recommends that if you’re going into the office, you use a mask that meets the ASTM’s minimum Workplace Performance Guidelines.
This is a list of manufacturers who have self-reported that their masks now meet the new workplace guidelines, based on their own testing. It’s important to note here that these masks are intended for nonmedical settings, and if you are high-risk or protecting a high-risk individual, we still recommend an N95. The surgical masks below follow a separate ASTM standard. Generally speaking, reusable cloth masks will be less effective, but make sure any mask that you wear follows the recommended guidelines from the CDC, fits well, and is clean.
An N95 Mask
N95 masks are regulated by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the CDC has updated its mask recommendations to note that N95s offer the best protection. The agency also offers an online tool to help find the free masks closest to you.
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This model is one of the CDC’s approved masks, and several WIRED team members (including myself) wear and recommend it. Instead of ear loops, it has two comfortable head straps for long-term wear and a molded shape that holds it off the face for easier breathing and less dampness. However, it doesn’t fold, which makes it harder to carry and store. And like most N95s at the moment, it fluctuates in and out of stock, so check back if it’s sold out.
Unfortunately, most disposable surgical masks do not offer a sufficient level of protection against airborne viruses, as these loose-fitting masks are designed at keeping out particulates and fluids. An N95 is much more effective because it forms a close seal around your nose and mouth.
However, if you need to keep extra masks in your car or donate masks to your kids’ school, these are affordable and light. They have also been certified to one of the ASTM’s three levels of efficacy. These are a Level 3, which means they’ve been tested to prove over 99 percent efficacy at keeping out bacteria and particulates and moderate efficacy at keeping out fluids. These are also great for outdoor workouts, as they’re so light. They may get soaked by sweat and vapor, but at least you won’t have to wash them afterward.
Best for Kids
Most of the mask mandates in schools have ended. However, your child may choose to continue masking on an occasional basis since, you know, everyone is sick right now. My 5-year-old and 8-year-old wear Happy Masks while at school and when traveling. The small size fits them well. These have a nanofiber filter and are a bit stiffer, with more structure than other masks, so they’re held off my kids’ faces, making it easier for them to breathe when they play. These are also the masks that I rotate with N95s.
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However, it verily hurts my eyeballs to see these $24 masks getting stained, crushed, or lost. Read our guide on the Best Masks for Kids for more options.
A KN95 Mask
KN95 and KN94 denote foreign manufacturing standards, but they usually indicate masks similar in efficacy to an N95. Just make sure you don’t get a fake one. You can check whether a mask manufacturer has gotten an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and the CDC has a few tips on how to spot a counterfeit face mask.
American-Made Disposable Masks
Disposable masks are affordable and easily found through large retailers. But it can be hard to independently verify their efficacy or provenance. And given worldwide shipping delays and stock shortages, it can be hard to predict when they’ll arrive.
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At the start of the pandemic, software entrepreneur Lloyd Armbrust pivoted to making masks. These are made in the US and have been independently tested to meet ASTM Level 3 certification. They’re noticeably thicker and sturdier than the disposable surgical masks I’ve purchased on Amazon. The company also makes accessories and folding N95 masks that arrived much more promptly than others that I’ve purchased.