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Should I double mask?

Posted on Feb. 2, 2021 ( comments)
All face coverings are not created equal. From left to right: two-layer mask with pocket for filter; single-layer neck gaiter; three-ply medical mask

With more contagious — and potentially more dangerous — COVID-19 virus variants spreading into the United States, the concept of double masking has been getting a lot of attention in the news and on social media, particularly after Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared to endorse the idea in a recent interview.

Is there benefit to double masking? Are you putting yourself at risk if you aren’t double masking? We asked Michael Myint, MD, infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at MultiCare, for his expert advice on this topic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first issued its masking recommendations for members of the public to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in July 2020. Even with new variants being detected, “The CDC hasn’t changed their stance on this in regards to what people should wear in public,” said Dr. Myint. 

That being said, he is quick to point out that what people are actually using for masks can vary quite a bit, from a single-layer bandanna to the N95 masks primarily being used by health care workers. 

“There’s a big difference between what meets the minimal requirement to, say, get into a store, and a mask that provides the level of protection the CDC is recommending,” he said.

The CDC recommendations include the following:

  • Choose a mask that has two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric.
  • Choose a mask that fits snugly against the sides of your face without gaps.
  • Wear the mask so it completely covers your nose and mouth.

There are a couple of key components required in order for a mask to be protective for you and those around you:

  1. Layers. The CDC recommends “two or more layers.” Most commercially made cloth masks include at least two layers. Many offer an option to add a third, filtering layer that can be replaced as needed. Medical grade masks, like a surgical mask, are made with three layers.
  2. Fit. Masks need to cover your nose and chin and fit snugly along the sides. If a mask gaps on the side — or if you don’t cover your nose when wearing the mask — the air particles you are breathing out, as well as breathing in, are not being sufficiently filtered through the mask. 

Single-layer masks don’t provide sufficient filtration to prevent you from breathing in particles in the air or keep particles you are breathing out from circulating. But this isn’t anything new. The renewed attention on this fact is primarily because the new virus variants spread more easily; so a single-layer mask may offer you even less protection against these newer variant strains of COVID-19 than before.

If the mask you are using is only a single layer, like a bandanna or neck gaiter, or if it is loose or otherwise fits poorly, you may want to consider wearing two masks — for example a cloth mask over a three-ply medical mask. Upgrading your masks to ones that fit better and include the recommended number of layers is also an option.

“The concept of ‘more is better’ is partially true,” said Dr. Myint. But there is one significant downside to wearing multiple masks at the same time: Breathability. The more layers of cloth you put on your face, the harder it is going to be to breathe easily.

“If you have to keep pulling your masks down to breathe, they’re not going to help you,” he said.

Bottom line, if you are currently using a multi-layer mask (ideally a commercially made, three-layer mask including a filter layer) that you are wearing correctly and that fits well, you don’t need to change your masking routine right now.  

It’s important to note, however, that wearing any mask or face covering while out in public is better than none at all, and the best mask for you is the one that you will wear consistently  — and correctly.

“I am not only concerned about the person who is wearing a single-layer bandana,” said Dr. Myint, “but also the person wearing a fully protective three-layer mask pulled down under their nose.” 

Posted in: COVID-19

About The Author

maura hallam Maura Hallam
Maura is an experienced writer and editor who writes extensively about health and wellness topics, from fitness and nutrition to medical insurance. 
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