Coronavirus: Do masks protect you; how do you wear them, where do you find them?

For those looking for some security as they venture back out into the world after months of sheltering at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mask can be a comforting item.

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Comforting, not comfortable, for sure. Seeing others with masks makes it less awkward and offers more of a feeling we are all in it together.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings as a way of stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The agency has urged Americans to use cloth face coverings to help people who may be asymptomatic from transmitting the virus to others.

The CDC suggests Americans use simple cloth face coverings “fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials." The CDC recommendations on masks do not include purchasing or using N95 respirators, the type of masks that you may see on nurses and doctors. Currently, those masks are being reserved for health care workers and medical first responders.

Here is what we know about masks, what types, if they protect, if they can be reused and more.

Do they protect

Certain masks can protect you from inhaling the droplets that contain the COVID-19 virus. Those masks are known as N95 masks. They are designed to filter 95% of large and small particles from the air you breathe.

N95 provides protection for the wearer from anyone who may have the virus. Cloth and surgical masks protect others from the mask wearer.

Types of masks

There are three main types of masks: surgical masks, N95 masks and cloth masks. Here is a look at what each one does:

Surgical masks

A surgical mask coverts the wearer's nose and mouth. It is loose-fitting – more or less open on the sides. These masks may protect others from droplets the wear may put off by coughing, sneezing or even breathing.

The mask is not designed to keep a person from getting the COVID-19 virus because the particles of the virus are small. Surgical masks filter larger particles.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any type of surgical mask specifically for protection against the COVID-19 virus.

N95 masks

An N95 mask offers the user protection from the virus because it filters out 95% of very small particles, such as the COVID-19 virus. It is more effective than a surgical mask does because an N95 mask can filter out both large and small particles.

N95 masks are also called respirators.

KN95 masks

You may see masks known as KN95 masks available on some websites. The KN95 mask is a version of the N95 mask that is made in China.

On April 3, the FDA approved KN95 masks as a suitable alternative to N95 masks if N95 masks are not available.

Cloth masks

People are turning to cloth masks if they have trouble getting other masks. They are generally inexpensive, can be worn many times and can be laundered after each use.

A cloth mask, like a surgical mask, is worn to protect others in case the wearer has the virus. It does not protect the wearer from others.

You can make your own cloth mask if you don’t want to purchase one. You can make one that does not require sewing. You need to use several layers of fabric for the mask. See the video below:

How to wear a cloth mask

From the CDC, below are some tips on cloth masks. Click here for instructions on making your own mask.

Cloth face coverings should:

- Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.

- Be secured with ties or ear loops.

- Include multiple layers of fabric.

- Allow for breathing without restriction.

- Be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

Susan L. Sokolowski, director and associate professor of Sports Product Design, and Karen L. LaBat, professor emerita of design, University of Minnesota, offered the following tips on masks in an article for The Conversation.

The fit

Masks should completely cover the nose and mouth. When measuring for a mask pattern, make sure it extends from the top of the nose – as close as possible to the eyes without obstructing sight – to under the chin. Masks should cover the face side-to-side, well past the opening of the mouth.

When developing prototypes, check around all edges of the mask for gaps. If you see any, close them up by pinching the fabric together, and stitch or tape or staple edges together to create a pleat or dart. A thin metal wire or paper clip placed along the top edge of the mask can stabilize and shape it along the bridge of the nose and cheekbone for a closer fit.

Masks should stay securely in position and fit comfortably with ties or elastic ear loops. If the mask is too tight or loose, the wearer may continuously adjust the mask forgetting the admonition, “Don’t touch your face!”

The ties and loops should also be the mechanism for taking off the mask as the front of the mask might be contaminated.

How to put a mask on

Here are a few tips from the Mayo Clinic for putting on and taking off a cloth mask:

  • Place your mask over your mouth and nose.
  • Tie it behind your head or use ear loops and make sure it's snug.
  • Don't touch your mask while wearing it.
  • If you accidentally touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands.
  • Remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face.
  • Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask.

Here are a few face mask precautions

  • Don't put masks on anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious or otherwise unable to remove the mask without help.
  • Don't put masks on children under 2 years of age.
  • Don't use face masks as a substitute for social distancing.

Are masks reusable?

Most cloth masks are reusable. You can wash them in your washing machine in hot water and put them in your dryer. If they have a pocket that holds a filter, make sure you take the filter out of the pocket before washing. Put in a new filter when the mask is dry.

N95 and surgical masks are designed to be used only once.

How can you tell if they are counterfeit?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a research agency focused on the study of worker safety and health, tests and approves respirators.

The agency maintains a list of approved respirators and tells consumers how to identify counterfeit ones. NIOSH-approved respirators will always have one the following designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99 and P100.

Here are some tips to identify counterfeit respirators:

  • No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator.
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband.
  • No NIOSH markings.
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly.
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins).
  • Claims for the approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children).
  • Filtering facepiece respirators have ear loops instead of headbands.

Where can you find a mask?

You are not likely to be able to find an N95 mask right now. Those masks are being funneled to health care facilities to protect doctors and nurses. Many websites have promised that those masks will be available soon.

Hardware stores and stores like Lowes and Home Depot do sell those masks, but they have not been in stock for a couple of months now.

You can find surgical masks at drugstores, Sam’s Club, Costco, Walmart and online at sites such as Amazon.

Cloth masks are sold on many online sites such as and retailers like Old Navy and Disney.