Free COVID at-home test kits Omicron vs. delta New Google Maps features Jack Reacher trailer Walmart PS5 and Xbox Series X restock Cyber Week deals
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are on the rise among the unvaccinated in parts of the US and abroad due in large part to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. A number of states have returned to indoor mask mandates, especially for students attending in-person classes, and it's common for businesses and events to also require masks for in-store shopping or large gatherings. 

Before discussing masks, it's important to underline that the best way to protect yourself against severe COVID-19 disease is to get vaccinated. But now that we're in the middle of the holidays and will be spending more time shopping and with friends and family, reviewing the best mask options is a good idea, regardless of vaccination status. 

We talked to two infectious disease specialists to determine the best face mask and face covering to protect yourself against the coronavirus in 2021. Their advice is below, followed by some updated recommendations based on their expertise.

Read more: CDC and WHO recommend fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors. Here's the latest

Disposable vs. cloth masks

"I highly recommend everyone get vaccinated especially with the highly transmissible delta variant going around," says Dr. Bob Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Health. "As far as masking, the N95 provides the maximum protection against COVID-19." 

A surgical N95 respirator is a disposable face covering used in hospital settings, which filters out at least 95% of airborne particles. Lahita recommends conserving N95s for "those who really need them" -- health care workers and immunocompromised people. The CDC recommends prioritizing N95s for health care settings first.

One popular alternative to the N95 mask is the KN95 mask, which is the Chinese equivalent of the US standard. KN95s are made from the same material as N95s and are also designed to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. Another alternative is the KF94, the South Korean equivalent to an N95, which has a slightly different shape and 94% filtration efficacy.

"To optimize protection from the highly infectious delta, I would recommend a high quality KF94 or KN95 for high risk situations," says Dr. Bob Bollinger, professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and founder of emocha Health.

Whether you're wearing an N95, a KN95 or a KF94, it won't be completely effective unless the face mask fits your face properly. "Make sure it fits snugly, without gaps around your nose, face and mouth," Bollinger says. This is why these masks typically have an adjustable nose wire -- to ensure a snug fit.

Then there are surgical-style masks -- the disposable kind of protective mask that you can find in every convenience store these days. While these surgical mask style coverings offer less protection than N95 respirators, they're still helpful for preventing the spread of the delta variant because they catch respiratory droplets. Look for a mask with at least three layers of material, and again, a snug fit around the mouth, nose and face. Further, if the elastic ear loop isn't tight enough, try tying a knot or twisting the loop to make the fit tighter.

Whatever you do, don't rely on a fabric mask alone anymore, which are good at protecting others from your respiratory droplets, but not at protecting you against theirs, even with a filter pocket. "I would say people should choose disposable masks, not cloth," Lahita says. "A cloth face mask is better than no mask if you don't have access to the disposable ones. It helps protect others if you sneeze or cough -- but it's less effective than the disposable version or the N95 face mask, especially because many people don't wash their cloth masks often."

One way that you can still use a cloth face mask, though, is to double mask with a disposable mask underneath. Especially if you can't find an N95, KN95 or KF94, Bollinger says, "a good quality disposable mask under a cloth mask is a reasonable alternative, as long as the fit on the face, nose and mouth is tight."

Different masks for different tasks

Different types of face masks offer varying amounts of protection. But not everyone needs the exact same level of protection, and specific situations may call for more or less caution.

If you're unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or otherwise at increased risk for COVID-19, you should wear the most protective face covering that you can get. That means wear a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94, or double mask. A protective mask is especially important if you're in an area with high community spread and/or low vaccination rates.

Opting for higher protection is also a good idea when you're in a riskier public setting -- like traveling on public transportation or visiting a health care facility -- regardless of your health status.

If you're fully vaccinated and low-risk, Lahita says a disposable surgical-style mask is fine for regular, daily use.

How to avoid counterfeit masks

In the US, N95s must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in order to qualify for medical use. 

Because the KN95 and KF94 aren't regulated by US authorities, it's a bit trickier to know you're getting the real deal, and counterfeit masks have abounded throughout the pandemic. The FDA approved certain KN95s under an Emergency Use Authorization in 2020, and while that authorization has expired, the list of FDA-approved face mask manufacturers is still a helpful resource. The CDC also maintains a list of non-NIOSH-approved masks that have gone through filtration testing. 

When it comes to KF94s, your best bet is to buy from a manufacturer in South Korea, which has its own strict testing associated with the KF94 label.

Another important note: Ignore the term "FDA registered" when shopping for masks. As the FDA notes on its website, facilities "involved in the production and distribution of medical devices intended for use in the United States are generally required to register annually with the FDA." But, importantly, the "FDA's registration and listing database does not denote approval, clearance, or authorization of that facility or its medical devices."

Our current face mask suggestions

Below, we've pulled together a list of N95s, KN95s, KF94s, surgical-style masks and cloth masks (which, again, we only recommend when doubling up). While we have not expressly "tested" most of these masks, they conform to the expert mask recommendations above.

Project N95

Project N95 is a nonprofit that vets personal protective equipment to help shoppers make sure they're buying legitimate, tested products. The shop sells N95s, KN95s, surgical masks and more from a variety of brands. By shopping directly from Project N95, you can ensure that your face covering is tested and trustworthy.

WWDoll

WWDoll's KN95s are manufactured in a factory in China that's on the FDA's EUA list. They have five layers of fabric, a foldable 3D shape, ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge to help you achieve a more secure fit. If white respirators are a bit too clinical-looking for you, these also come in black and pink.

Vida

A previous favorite in the cloth mask space, Vida now makes disposable KN95s as well, and they're from EUA-approved factories in China. Choose from a range of face mask colors, and regular or kids sizes. You can buy anywhere from a 10-pack to a 1,000-pack of these KN95s, and send your used ones back to Vida to be recycled.

Powecom

Powecom's KN95s are affordable, with a pack of 10 ringing up at under $15. They feature the standard five-layered face mask, adjustable design with ear loops and come from an EUA-authorized Chinese manufacturer. Reviewers say they're comfortable and form a nice tight seal around the face, with no gaps around the edges.

LG Health Care

These KF94s from LG Health Care are made in Korea with four layers of material. Unlike KN95s, KF94s have a double-tiered design that allows for a closer fit, yet also adds more room in the mask to breathe. Since these also have an adjustable ear loop design, it's even easier to get a gap-free seal. 

EvolveTogether

While a bit pricier per mask than the disposable masks you'll find in convenience stores, EvolveTogether's masks have everything you need -- they're filtration-tested, comfortable and as sustainable as a single-use product can possibly be. The face mask packaging is both recyclable and biodegradable. They feature four layers of material, an adjustable nose bridge and ear loops. (EvolveTogether also makes KN95s, but they're often sold out.)

WeCare

WeCare's disposable face masks are individually sealed, which is helpful for hygiene purposes when you're on the go. The three-layered masks have ear loops, nose wire and are sturdy and reasonably comfortable. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, including both kids and adult sizes. They come in a box of 50.

ICU Health

There's something to be said for a go-to brand of disposable masks that you can easily pick up in person when you need to. These masks from ICU Health are widely available at stores like Target and Walmart. These face masks are not winning any points for innovation or comfort, but they do the job, offering three layers of protection, ear loops and an adjustable nose bridge. And because they're relatively cheap, they're perfect for double masking.

Uniqlo

If you plan to use a cloth mask to double mask, Uniqlo's Airism masks are a comfortable pick for everyday wear. They're made of the same breathable, cooling fabric that Uniqlo's activewear and undergarments are made from, which helps alleviate the discomfort of wearing a cloth mask. They have three layers of fabric, plus a built-in washable filter, and they come in four sizes from small to extra-large.

Under Armour

One circumstance where a cloth mask has definite advantages, at least as far as comfort: working out. Wearing an N95-style respirator during exercise isn't feasible, but you can add a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask for extra protection, and the Under Armour Sportsmask is a great breathable face mask contender -- it's one of CNET's picks for the best face masks for exercise. This face mask has three layers of breathable fabric and doesn't cling to your face or make you feel hot, instead offering a cooling effect.

This story has been completely updated from its previous version, with new information and new mask choices.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.