Mask mandates were ending across the country, but Philadelphia just reinstated an indoor mask mandate as Covid-19 cases rise—yet another reminder that the pandemic is not over. It's important to have a steady supply of good masks handy for whenever you're entering public indoor spaces or spending time with people outside of your household. As a new Omicron subvariant drives a surge in cases, there's been a renewed focus on which masks to buy and where to get them. We looked into it, and here's what we've found.
Updated April 2022: We've added additional masks—including KF94 options.
The best kinds of disposable face masks to wear haven't changed a lot:
N95 masks are your best bet. N95s are regulated by the US-based NIOSH agency to meet a certain standard of quality. N95s are sometimes referred to as “respirators.” The CDC has a tool you can use to find local pharmacies that provide free N95 respirators.
KN95 and KF94 masks are also effective, and likely comfier. KN95s are governed by a different set of standards specific to China and are sometimes easier to find. KF94 masks are similar to KN95s but governed by a Korean standard. These are also sometimes referred to as “respirators.”
Surgical-style masks (three-ply) are the next best thing you can wear. They aren't as effective as the above masks, but if they have a good, tight fit they can still be effective in less risky settings. We have tips on how to improve your fit in our guide to our favorite masks.
Cloth masks are not as effective. If you can't get your hands on the masks listed above, at least wear a cloth mask. They're likely far less effective, depending on their material makeup.
You can double-mask with a surgical mask and a cloth mask, but it's important to keep in mind that for N95s, this might alter their effectiveness. The CDC explicitly advises against combining a KN95 mask with any other kind of mask, including cloth coverings. In general, any N95 mask that fits your face could be pushed out of place if you put a cloth covering over it.
It's incredibly important to get a mask that fits your face. A big part of the reason cloth or even surgical masks can be less effective is due to the gaps between the mask and the face. These areas can allow unfiltered air to get through and enter your nose and mouth. N95 masks are generally designed to fit snugly, which is why they're safer.
What Are Workplace Performance Masks?
Most of the CDC and Food and Drug Administration's mask guidance and standards were initially designed with medical settings like doctors' offices and hospitals in mind. However, the pandemic has made it much more common and necessary for people to wear masks in non-medical contexts. To help with this, the ASTM International standard makes it easier to classify masks for everyday work.
Under this standard, masks can be labeled as either Workplace Performance or Workplace Performance Plus. The NIOSH recommends using these masks in a workplace environment but, crucially, does not recommend them as a replacement for N95 or other respirators. If you or someone you interact with regularly is a high-risk individual, or if you work in a medical setting, you should stick with N95s.
This new standard rates masks based on filtration and breathability, as well as an optional leakage ratio. The CDC has a list of masks here, and it tells which masks pass enough of these criteria to qualify for either of the Workplace Performance labels (as of writing, there are only two that earned the label), but this is all based on data reported by suppliers and manufacturers. If you can't find N95 masks but don't work in a high-risk setting, these are also decent masks to pick up.
Also, note that ASTM refers to the agency that classifies standards, but this workplace standard is not the only ASTM standard that governs masks. This standard is technically ASTM F3502-21, which only has the two Workplace Performance levels mentioned above. You may also see other masks that use labels like “ASTM Level 3,” which refer to different ASTM standards for medical masks. For our purposes, all of this means that if you're looking for low-risk masks for the office, look for the Workplace Performance labels.
Get Free Masks From the Government
Thanks to a White House initiative, around 400 million N95 masks are being distributed to pharmacies and community centers across the country. Up to three masks are available per adult, with the administration promising “high-quality” masks for children coming in the near future.
Many of the distribution locations will be the places where you may have gotten your vaccine. You can check your local vaccine centers, community health centers, or any major pharmacy chain, to see if they have any in stock. The masks are N95s. Notably, surgical N95 masks will be held back for health care workers. Read our guide on where to find a free N95 mask here.
N95 Respirator Face Masks
The CDC has a giant list of approved N95 masks. Unfortunately, the supply of many brands is constantly fluctuating, so you may need to check back regularly to see which are in stock. Many stores also have regional stock based on in-store supply, so be sure to check your local zip code at different sites where applicable.
If you need a large number of N95s on the cheap, this pack from Kimberly-Clark is one of your best bets. While these are NIOSH-approved N95 respirators, they're not intended for medical use. If that's not an issue for you, then the horizontal-fold pouch and bendable nosepiece should provide a solid seal on your face, while still costing less than a dollar per mask.
This fold-style mask uses two over-the-head straps to keep the mask snug on your face, while still allowing a fair amount of breathing room in front of your mouth and nose. These are among the pricier masks on our list, but members of our team have used these and found them comfortable and sturdy.
This model is one of the CDC's many approved N95 masks (and it's frequently out of stock). It uses two separate straps to keep the mask tight around your face. Members of our team have used these masks and found that they seal nicely around the face but still stay far enough away from the nose and mouth to let you breathe and talk comfortably. That distance also helps keep the masks dry. Sadly, they do not fold.
Titan Protect's masks are another pricey option, but you do get a lot more per box than the ones listed above. The NIOSH-certified mask has an adjustable aluminum nosepiece (which can help keep eyeglasses from fogging), an upper and lower head strap for a secure seal, and a flat-fold design that's meant to fit most faces. It's worth noting this set comes in medium and large, so those with smaller faces will want to consider another mask.
3M's N95 respirators are individually wrapped and have two horizontal folds that create a decent-sized cup in front of your nose and mouth. The masks come with two straps that go over your head and neck to keep a tight seal. This is one of the smaller packs on our list, but you may have an easier time finding it in stock at some stores.
The DF300 N95 from Honeywell is a more affordable option on this list. With this mask, you'll get multilayer absorption (including a humidity- and moisture-resistant filter), a soft inner lining, and latex-free head straps. The nose clip is also adjustable and hidden underneath the mask. It comes complete with a soft foam nose cushion as well, which should make it more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time.
Vida's KF94 mask is both protective and stylish. It's FDA listed, CE-certified (and manufactured in South Korea), and offers a 94 percent filtration efficiency. The four-layer mask comes in adorable pastel colors including light green, light pink, and light blue. It's also available in a variety of pack sizes from 10 all the way up to 1,000.
The BOTN KF94 masks only come in large and extra-large for adults, so those with smaller faces should look into the youth size. The mask does come with earloops and a nosepiece that are both adjustable, so it should help ensure a tight fit if you go for the bigger size. It also comes in a variety of color options including beige, dark grey, pink, and yellow. There's usually a coupon you can clip on the page to snag 'em for $19.
LG's Airwasher mask is a standard KF94 with a three-dimensional design, four-ply fabric, an adjustable nose clip, and rounded ear loops. If you want a slightly more elevated option, it also comes in a “Black Style” design that'll likely pair well with fancier outfits for more formal occasions.
As we mentioned above, KN95 face masks aren't ideal for higher-risk individuals or medical settings, but if you need better filtration than a cloth mask for everyday, low-risk use, these are a decent way to go. On top of being less expensive per mask, they also come in a variety of colors, which should make it easier to coordinate an outfit or just mix it up once in a while. These KN95 masks come in black and are individually wrapped. They're pretty cheap compared to the N95 masks listed above, at less than a dollar per mask. They also happen to be our top pick for face masks.
The White Powecom masks come with a multi-filtration system and an adjustable metal nosepiece. You can also choose between the standard KN95 ear loops or the N95 headband style, depending on what you find more comfortable. It comes in a fairly wide range of color options as well, from white and gray to bright pink and deep red.
Masks for Kids
Once kids are over the age of 2, you can consider putting a face mask on them. We recommend anything they'll actually wear. We have a suggestion below, and our Best Face Masks for Kids guide has more.
Kids' masks are a bit more difficult, since health agencies don't regulate them in quite the same way, but this pack is one of our favorites. It's reusable and can be used for children 3 to 12 years old. It comes in blue, white, and pink. It has been independently tested by several international product-testing and quality-assurance companies, and it is the mask that WIRED editor Adrienne So's kids use for school.
Our mask reviewer, Adrienne So, had her kids test these. They come in three sizes, for different ages, and should provide protection similar to a KN95—more protection than a standard surgical-style mask. There's frequently a coupon on the page you can clip to knock a few dollars off.
If You Can't Find a Mask, Try Project N95
Project N95 isn't a specific mask but rather a nonprofit devoted to connecting personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies with the people and health care organizations that need them. If you're not having luck finding masks in your usual spots, you can browse the organization's marketplace to find more masks and respirators as well as testing kits and other protective gear.
Does Omicron Change Mask Requirements?
Omicron is a highly transmissible variant, and that's why health experts suggest N95 or KN95 masks. It has led to concerns that cloth or even surgical masks aren't effective at blocking the transmission of the virus. Research is still ongoing, but we know that cloth and surgical masks are better than nothing, and N95s are your best bet.
According to a report from spring 2021, if an infected and noninfected person were both wearing cloth masks, it would take around 27 minutes for an infectious dose of Covid-19 to reach the noninfected person. If both were wearing surgical masks, that time would rise to about an hour. If both were wearing non-fitted N95s, it would take 25 hours to receive an infectious dose. This was before the Delta or Omicron variants, but it should offer an idea of the masks' relative effectiveness levels.
How Do I Avoid Counterfeit Masks?
There are a number of ways to spot counterfeit N95 masks, such as by looking for markings on the mask itself or by avoiding N95 masks marketed to children (since the NIOSH doesn't approve any type of respirators for kids). The CDC offers much more thorough guidance on how to avoid N95 counterfeits on its site.
We don't recommend buying just any mask you see on Amazon, since Amazon allows third-party sellers on its platform that may not vet products as well as those sold by Amazon.com. You should know that Walmart, Target, and other retailers may also sell third-party masks—make sure you always look at the seller. The masks on this list are legitimate, as are many masks you'll find in major retail chains, like CVS, or from US manufacturers.
Earlier in the pandemic, the CDC authorized emergency use of KN95, KF94, and other non-N95 masks in health care settings, but that order was revoked in June 2021. Still, many KN95 or KF94 masks are more than adequate for everyday use for low-risk individuals, and they're far better than no mask at all. When shopping for a mask, keep in mind what your needs are and how you plan to use the masks you buy.
Can I Reuse Disposable Masks?
If you walk into a coffee shop for two minutes on your way to work with a brand-new N95 on, do you need to throw it out and use a new one when you arrive? Not exactly.
According to the CDC's guidelines, N95 masks will lose their effectiveness over a number of hours, but they will also become less effective the more times they're taken on and off. Part of the reason for this is that the elastic bands wear out and result in a less tight fit. The CDC recommends that if you can't find data from your mask manufacturer on how many times you can take a mask on and off, don't remove and replace a mask more than five times. However, this advice is given in the context of hospital settings.
If you're not at high risk and don't work in a medical setting, you may be able to get away with reusing masks over longer periods of time. One of the inventors credited with creating the synthetic fabric in N95 respirators uses a rotating system of seven masks, using a new one each day and hanging it in an isolated space for the rest of the week before using it again.
Removing a mask also requires touching it, which can mean particles transfer from the mask to your hands and then back to your face. It's a very good idea to wash your hands effectively after removing or replacing a mask. Try to avoid touching the mask itself and use the elastic bands.
Eric Ravenscraft is a product writer and reviewer at WIRED, based in Austin, Texas. He's guided readers on how to use technology for nearly a decade for publications including Lifehacker, OneZero, and The New York Times. He also streams on Twitch for WIRED occasionally and can be found on YouTube... Read more