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Is your disposable mask actually protecting you? Experts share what to look for

TODAY logo TODAY 1/28/2022 Jillian Ortiz

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As the omicron variant is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United States, masking remains an important safety precaution during the pandemic.

However, not all masks are created equal. The cloth mask you may have been wearing since March 2020 might not be the best option at this stage. As suggested by the updated masking guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection" than loosely woven cloth products and layered finely woven products.

So, we asked the experts what qualities you should look for when shopping for safe disposable options.

How to choose a disposable face mask

"You should use a quality-made three-ply surgical mask made from melt blown fabric and validated to have higher filtration — not all surgical masks are equal," Ranu Dhillon, an epidemic response specialist at Harvard Medical School, told Shop TODAY.

"Surgical masks made out of melt blown fabric do provide filtration of the air passing through the mask on par with or close to N95s," Dhillon continued. "The limitation of these masks is that they don’t fit tightly around the mouth and nose and thereby allow potentially infectious particles to float around the edges."

Waleed Javaid, MD, director of Infection Prevention and Control for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, and professor of Infectious Disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Shop TODAY that surgical masks are fine to wear in certain situations.

“If you’re not in any high-risk situations, you should wear a mask that you can wear for an extended period of time," Javaid said. “I’m not wearing KN95s or N95s all the time, I’m wearing it when I’m in crowded conditions, when I’m caring for patients, we have to wear an N95 mask, but otherwise you should be fine.”

There are other factors that are just as important as filtration, though, including the fit of the mask on your face. "The mask should be well-fitting, covering the nose, mouth and chin, and it should be breathable," Javaid said, "It should have a nose wire."

Another factor that can be helpful when choosing a disposable mask is determining whether it conforms to ASTM standards, Javaid said.

ASTM levels, created by ASTM International, an organization that defines and sets standards for goods used by working people, can be found on select kinds of disposable masks. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ASTM International tests masks and rates them based on levels of fluid resistance, bacterial filtration efficiency, sub-micron particulate filtration, breathing resistance and flammability.

An ASTM level 3 is the highest, identifying greater than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency, sub-micron particulate filtration and is ideal in situations "in which there is a high risk of fluid exposure," according to ASTM International. An ASTM level 1 is ideal in situations with "low risk of fluid exposure." A level 1 has greater than 95% bacterial filtration efficiency and sub-micron particulate filtration.

How long can I wear a disposable mask?

If you are using a disposable mask sporadically, you might be able to wear it on multiple occasions before it is time to swap it for a new one.

"If you’re exercising in it or if you’re wearing it throughout the day, I think at the end of the day, it's time to get rid of the mask," Richard Martinello, MD, associate professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases) and of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, told Shop TODAY. "But if somebody works in a private office or if they’re a student and they’re in their room on Zoom with no mask on all day and they only wear a mask periodically, that mask may actually remain reasonable for them to wear for a longer period of time."

However, if you frequently are feeling moisture on the inside of the mask or if you sneeze while wearing it, replacing it with a new disposable mask is best practice, Martinello advised.

What is the difference between disposable and medical masks?

Paying attention to the labeling of the masks you are looking to purchase is key in figuring out how exactly the mask is intended to be used.

"You can imagine a Venn diagram where we have 'face coverings' which is just a broad term — you know, from bandanas to surgical masks and respirators," Martinello said. "And then 'medical masks' are just masks that are developed for use in the health care setting and 'surgical masks' are a subset of that and are really characterized by their fluid resistance properties."

Below, we rounded up disposable mask options. Although we haven't had the chance to try all of them, each of the masks included meet criteria described by the experts above, such as number of layers and adjustable fit.

Disposable face masks

Evolvetogether Disposable Face Masks

Evolvetogether Disposable Face Masks

Evolvetogether Disposable Face Masks $8.97 at Evolvetogether

This celeb-loved brand makes disposable face masks in a variety of colors and designs. Each 3-ply Evolvetogether mask (matte black versions are 4-ply) features three layers of filtration and offers a bacteria filtration efficiency (BFE) that is greater than 98% and a particle filtration efficiency greater than 95%, according to the brand. They are also available in kid sizes.

Maskc Variety Disposable Face Masks

Maskc Disposable Face Masks

Maskc Disposable Face Masks $18.00 at Maskc

Maskc's masks come in packs of 10 in a resealable bag for easy storage and access. The 3-ply masks feature a moisture-proof inner layer, a melt-blown center and a non-woven exterior layer. They offer a bacterial filtration efficiency greater than 95%, according to the brand, and also have an adjustable nose wire.

Demetech Surgical Mask ASTM Level 3

Demetech Surgical Mask ASTM Level 3

Demetech Surgical Mask ASTM Level 3 $17.50 at Bona Fide Masks

These masks from Demetech are an ASTM Level 3 and feature three layers, including a filter layer that "provides at least 98% filtration against airborne particles and bacteria," according to the brand. You can purchase a minimum of 50 masks or as many as 25,000 from the brand.

Pri-Med ASTM Level 3 Disposable Mask

Pri-Med ASTM Level 3 Disposable Mask

Pri-Med ASTM Level 3 Disposable Mask $14.99 at Staples

This box of 50 masks from Pri-Med contains 50 ASTM Level 3 masks, which all feature double-reinforced, bendable nosepieces. According to the brand, they have a filtration efficiency of 98%.

PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks

PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks

PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks (Amazon / Amazon)

PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks $18.99 at Amazon

PlastCare's masks contain four layers of fabric and an aluminum nose bridge. They've been tested by Nelson Labs and, according to the brand, are an ASTM Level 3 for more than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency.

Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks

Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks

Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks (Amazon / Amazon)

Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks $13.95 at Amazon

These masks from Defender Safety feature three layers: an outer barrier made from polypropylene, a middle barrier layer made from melt blown polypropylene and an inner barrier layer made of spunbond polypropylene. They are an ASTM Level 1 and have a bacterial filtrations efficiency of 95%, according to the brand.

BYD Care Level 3 Surgical Masks

BYD Care Level 3 Surgical Masks

BYD Care Level 3 Surgical Masks $12.99 at Office Depot

BYD Care's masks are made from three layers of non-woven material. Each of the five bags in the box contain 10 masks, so there are a total of 50 masks inside. They've been given an ASTM Level 3 rating, which provides the highest level of protection from particulate matter.

Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black (Pack of 50)

Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black 50Pcs

a close up of a device: Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black 50Pcs (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black 50Pcs (Amazon / Amazon)

Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black 50Pcs $14.99 at Amazon

These bestselling sleek black masks feature three layers as well as an adjustable nose wire. The brand describes the material as having a melt-blown polypropylene filtration layer, which makes it resilient and easy to wear.

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This article was originally published on Feb. 10, 2021.

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