Public Health

Is It Time to Upgrade Your Cloth Mask?

As of Feb. 10, the CDC recommends double-masking to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

By Stefan Milne February 12, 2021

Editor's note: As of Wednesday, Feb. 10, the CDC recommends double-masking in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask is now advised. For more information, click here

Since it was recommended early in the pandemic, I’ve been wearing cloth and surgical masks. But in each, I’ve felt puffs of air escaping around the edges. One breath might push up past my nose, another out past the cheeks. Unless I press my lips to the fabric, though, I’m definitely not filtering all the air through the actual mask. Up until a couple weeks ago, I’d accepted this. We were trying to stop droplets, mostly, right?

But with pernicious new virus variants rampaging across the world—including the U.K. version that British scientists say may be as high as 70 percent more transmissible—I thought it was time for a little more protection. When I headed to the grocery store, I put on a surgical mask under my cloth mask. I felt less air leak—probably a good sign.   

This week, citing the new variants, Germany and Austria began requiring medical masks—such as FFP2, something like the European version of an N95—in public. Other countries like Singapore and South Korea have already distributed high-filtration medical masks to their citizens. Stateside experts are now recommending similar precautions, or double masking. Though obviously this puts us in a quandary: Many of us (me!) have been wanting high filtration N95 masks since the start of the pandemic, but we opted for cloth or other imperfect choices because we didn’t have enough in this country. That’s still the case; NPR reported this week that nurses are wearing N95s for five shifts at a time (they’re supposed to be for a single patient visit).

Because I’m at pretty low risk (33 and I work from home), I decided against N95s but did upgrade to some KN95s (these), to use in higher risk situations. These meet a Chinese standard and are cheaper and easier to find, but not NIOSH approved—though still better than some ill-fitting piece of cloth. There are also a lot of fake N95s and KN95s out there. The FDA has a list of masks it’s approved for emergency use. If you don’t opt for those, putting a surgical mask under your cloth one isn’t a bad idea. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Today show last week that double masking “just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective.”

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