Put down that cloth mask and opt for an N95, KN95 or KF94 instead, experts say.
Editors' note, January 2023: While the general advice in this story was accurate at the time of publication, the list of products in this story is no longer actively maintained and may include outdated recommendations.
With the highly contagious BA.5 variant now constituting the vast majority of COVID-19 cases, wearing a mask is key to slowing transmission and staying safe. But if you're using a homemade cloth mask, you may be at higher risk than you think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current mask guidance strongly advises against using any "loosely woven cloth products," which provide little protection against COVID-19.
Surgical masks and KN95s provide more protection than cloth face coverings, and approved well-fitting respirators such as N95s provide the most protection, according to the CDC. If you're higher-risk for COVID because of your job or health status, that's especially important information to keep in mind.
We talked to two infectious disease specialists to determine the best face mask and face covering to protect yourself against the coronavirus in 2022, given the rapidly changing landscape. Their advice is below, followed by some updated recommendations based on their expertise.
Read more: 8 COVID-19 Mask Myths to Stop Believing Today
According to the CDC's updated guidance, a well-fitting respirator that is approved by the the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers the "highest level of protection" out of any face covering. These include N95 respirators, a disposable face covering that filters out at least 95% of airborne particles.
"An N95 is the best, if you can get it," said Dr. Bob Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Health and author of Immunity Strong. The CDC recommends N95s labeled "surgical" for health care personnel.
One popular alternative to the N95 is the KN95 respirator, 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. (Neither KN95s nor KF94s are NIOSH-approved.)
"I would recommend a high-quality KF94 or KN95 for high-risk situations," said 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 effective unless the face mask fits your face properly and you can wear it consistently, the CDC says. "Make sure it fits snugly, without gaps around your nose, face and mouth," Bollinger said. This is why these masks typically have an adjustable nose wire for a better fit.
Then there are surgical-style masks -- the disposable kind of protective mask that you can find in every convenience store these days. These surgical mask-style coverings offer less protection than respirators -- according to the CDC, a respirator such as an N95 "has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask."
That said, a well-fitting surgical mask is still effective at filtering respiratory droplets, and it's useful in lower-risk situations or when it's all you can find. Look for a mask with at least three layers of material and a snug fit around the mouth, nose and face. Further, if the elastic ear loops aren'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 any more. They're 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 said. "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."
Another way to maximize protection is to double mask with a cloth and surgical mask. If you can't find an N95, KN95 or KF94, Bollinger said, "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." You can also put an N95, KN95 or KF94 under a regular disposable mask for a tighter seal.
Different types of face masks offer varying amounts of protection. But not everyone needsthe exact same level of protection, and specific situations may call for more or less caution.
For instance, during the omicron surge there was a sharp increase in risk of transmission, so experts advised upgrading accordingly to a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94, or double masking.
The CDC says that "a respirator may be considered in certain situations and by certain people when greater protection is needed or desired." Some of the situations that call for a respirator include:
Opting for higher protection is also a good idea whenever you're in a riskier public setting, like traveling on public transportation or visiting a health care facility, no matter your own health status. "Certainly, if you're in a nursing home or a hospital, you must wear an N95," Lahita said. "If you're in a classroom with kids, the teacher should be wearing an N95."
If you're up to date on your shots, low-risk and in a region with less transmission, a well-fitting surgical mask is fine for regular, daily use. And when you're outdoors, masking is less necessary, Lahita said. That's unless you're in a crowded area, or will be in close contact with unvaccinated people.
In the US, N95s must be approved by NIOSH, as well as by the US Food and Drug Administration 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 proliferated 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."
Below, is a list of N95, KN95, KF94, surgical-style and cloth masks (which, again, are recommended when doubling up). While CNET hasn't expressly "tested" most of these masks, they conform to the expert mask recommendations above.
Bear in mind that prices and availability change often because of supply and demand for masks. We do our best to ensure our information is up-to-date, but the prices at the retailers below may differ.
Project N95 is a nonprofit that vets personal protective equipment to help shoppers make sure they're buying legitimate, tested products. The shop sells N95 masks, KN95 masks, surgical masks and other types from a variety of brands. By shopping directly from Project N95, you can be more confident that your face covering is tested and trustworthy.
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's KN95s are affordable, with a pack of 10 ringing up at around $12. They feature the standard five-layered 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.
WWDoll's KN95s are manufactured in a factory in China that's on the FDA's EUA list. They have multiple 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 a variety of colors, including black and pink.
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 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.
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'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 and a 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.
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.
If you plan to use a cloth mask to double-mask with, 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.
One circumstance where a cloth mask has definite advantages, at least as far as comfort, is 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. Pricing varies depending on size and color.
The masks on this list haven't undergone testing at CNET. Instead, we compiled this list based on the CDC's guidelines and the expertise of medical professionals, who advise using an N95, KN95 or KF94 respirator for ultimate protection and a surgical mask for everyday wear in lower-risk situations.
We chose respirators that are relatively easy to find, have passed filtration testing, and have received any relevant stamps of approval from government agencies. N95s, for example, must be approved by NIOSH, as well as the FDA if they're for medical use. For KN95s, we looked for masks from manufacturers that previously received emergency approval from the FDA. For KF94s, we looked for masks that have been tested and approved in South Korea.
We chose surgical masks with a minimum of three layers of nonwoven material and an adjustable nose wire. Since surgical masks are one-time-use only, we looked for options at a variety of price points. For both respirators and surgical masks, we also took comfort, breathability and ease of use into consideration, based on customers' reviews.
When it comes to cloth masks, experts caution against using them by themselves at this stage of the pandemic. But they can be used for double-masking, and when it comes down to it, the CDC says that the best mask is the one that you can wear comfortably on a regular basis. With that in mind, we looked for cloth masks that are comfortable, adjustable, machine washable and have three layers of fabric.