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Double masking 101: Experts explain how — and why — you should do it

In some cases, two masks are better than one.
Nahhan / Getty Images/iStockphoto

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It's been more than a year and a half since the Centers for Disease Control first advised people to start wearing face coverings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Since then, we've become pretty accustomed to grabbing our go-to masks before we head out the door.

But with the omicron variant and confirmed cases increasing, masking is more important than ever. While cloth and disposable masks have been the standard for many of us up until now, the CDC recently updated its guidance, adding that N95s "provide the highest level of protection from particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19," when they are worn properly and consistently.

Though, while they offer optimal protection, they might not be the best fit for everyone. "The preferable option is a mask that you can wear for an extended period of time — and the highest level of mask that you can wear for an extended period of time," said Dr. Waleed Javaid, epidemiologist and director of Infection Prevention and Control at Mount Sinai in New York City to Shop TODAY. He added that some people may have difficulty wearing an N95 mask for long and will often find themselves taking it off to breathe or talk. "If I can't keep the mask on during my journey, my commute or my work, then I think that defies the purpose of the mask," he said.

In its updated guidance, the CDC shared some insights as to which masks provide the highest levels of protection. While KN95s and respirators approved by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, like N95s, topped the list, well-fitting disposable surgical masks were next, followed by layered finely woven products.

If you're opting for a disposable or cloth mask, to improve the fit and reduce your risk of exposure to the virus, the CDC recommends either combining the mask with a fitter or brace, knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask or wearing a cloth mask over a disposable one. The latter practice, which has been dubbed double masking, can be a helpful extra step in protecting yourself and others.

Why double mask?

How effective your mask is depends on the fit and the quality of the material, said Dr. Krystal Pollitt, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. "Adding more layers to the mask will improve filtration (and) this can be achieved by wearing two masks."

Think of it as a net for the virus, added Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Each 'net' still has holes in it, but if you line two up on top of each other, there are fewer ways to get through both 'nets' altogether."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, previously told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY, that wearing a surgical mask under a cloth mask is one way to get a better fit and minimize air leakage.

How to double mask

When wearing two masks, you should layer the disposable mask underneath the cloth mask, Javaid said. The masks should cover your nose, mouth and chin and the medical procedure mask should have a nose wire.

According to the CDC, you should never wear two medical masks together because the fit will be off, and KN95s should not be combined with any other type of mask.

When double masking, it's important to think about the fit, said Pollitt. Because layering masks adds more resistance when breathing, if there are any gaps, more air will leak out. One way to test your mask is by putting on a pair of glasses. If they fog up, your mask has a gap in the nose area, Pollitt said, and it doesn't fit properly.

When to double mask

It's only recommended that you double-mask in certain situations, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. In areas where there is more ventilation, your mask can be less fitted, she said. So, for example, if you're taking a walk outdoors, a disposable mask may do. If you're medically high-risk or you're in a location where distancing measures and ventilation are lacking, like at the grocery store, you might want to double mask.

For children, who tend to be lower-risk, Gandhi said she is concerned about recommending double-masking. As many parents know, getting a kid to wear just one mask can be a hard enough task to accomplish.

"I am cautious about recommending kids to wear a second mask," Pollitt added. "I would rather focus (on them) wearing one mask properly and select a mask made from materials that offer high filtration."

Below we've rounded up bestselling options based on reviews and information that we received from the brands of both disposable and cloth masks that meet the layer and fit requirements recommended by experts.

Bestselling disposable face masks

Modenna Disposable Face Mask, Set of 50

These disposable masks come in five different colors and feature three layers, for optimal base layer protection. They also have a nose clip, which will help keep air from escaping at the top.

ZTANPS Face Mask, Set of 50

These bestselling, simple black masks are on sale now for under $6 and will pair well with a cloth mask. Like the above masks, each one features three layers and a nose clip for a better fit.

evolvetogether Disposable Face Masks

You can choose between a variety of design and color options for this celeb-loved disposable face mask brand. According to the brand, each mask is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is certified medical-grade by the testing laboratory, SGS.

Maskc Midnight Face Masks, Set of 10

Maskc, another celebrity-loved brand offers a range of disposable face masks. These ones feature two soft, skin-friendly inner layers that are breathable and moisture-proof for ultimate comfort. Each pack comes with 10 masks.

Bestselling cloth face masks

Jaanuu Reusable Antimicrobial Finished Face Mask

Jaanuu's popular reusable face masks are breathable, lightweight and have soft ear straps designed to provide a more comfortable fit. They come in five packs and are available in seven colors.

Athleta Everyday Non Medical Face Masks, Five Pack

Athleta is known for its affordable closet staples, including its bestselling reusable masks. The three-pack features a variety of colors and patterns of three-layer cotton coverings.

Doset Cloth Face Mask, Pack of 3

Grab this top-rated three-pack in a neutral shade or choose one of the fun color and pattern options.

EnerPlex 3-Ply Reusable Black Face Mask

Made with three layers of fabric and adjustable ear straps, this mask set comes in a variety of sizes to fit different face shapes. It has more than 76,000 five-star ratings on Amazon, with reviewers saying that it's both comfortable and breathable.

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