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Can't find an N95 or KN95? Here are 5 tips to boost your mask's protection

If you're unable to find, afford or fit an N95-style respirator, use these tips to make the most of your surgical and cloth masks.

Kim Wong-Shing
Kim Wong-Shing Senior Associate Editor / Wellness
Kim Wong-Shing loves demystifying the world of wellness to make it accessible to any reader. She's also passionate about exploring the intersections of health, history and culture. Prior to joining CNET, she contributed stories to Glamour, MindBodyGreen, Greatist and other publications.
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6 min read
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Amid record-breaking numbers of cases of COVID-19, health experts are recommending that you ditch your old cloth masks and even those handy blue surgical masks. Instead, they say an N95, KN95 or KF94 are the best choices. With 95% filtration, N95 and KN95 respirators provide the maximum amount of protection of any face covering -- and that's what you need against the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even considering changing its mask guidance to recommend that people wear a well-fitting N95 or KN95 "if they can do so consistently," the Washington Post reported. The updated guidance is not only inspired by the increased contagiousness of omicron, but also by the fact that N95s are no longer in short supply, like they were in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic.

But for members of the general public, there can be a stark disconnect between recommendations and reality. N95s may not technically be in short supply in the US, but they can still be hard to shop for – you can't just walk into your local CVS and pick one up. Online stock is easier to find, but it can quickly sell out, come with lengthy shipping times, or simply be too expensive for some Americans to access. Moreover, it can be tricky to sort through all the different brands to avoid fakes – not to mention finding one that actually fits your face properly. Different brands work for different people, but it's hard to shop around in such a tight market. 

You can find more advice about which mask styles and brands to look for on CNET's roundup of best face masks, which explains the differences between N95s, KN95s and KF94s. 

But if your N95-style mask of choice is sold out, won't get to you for three weeks or is just priced too high, there are still steps that you can take with surgical and cloth masks to maximize protection against omicron. Here's what to know.

(Before we move on, a reminder that staying up to date on your vaccinations, including booster doses, is by far the most important way to protect yourself against COVID-19. Unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to die from COVID than fully vaccinated people.)

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Surgical masks are better than cloth

Let's say you can't get your hands on a well-fitting, high-quality N95, KN95 or KF94 right now. That leaves you with two options: a cloth mask or a surgical-style mask, both of which are widely available at all budgets. Of the two, you should always opt for a surgical mask.

A cloth mask is the least effective face covering you can use, and one that was only recommended in the early days of the pandemic because even surgical masks were in extremely short supply. It's better than nothing – but when it comes to omicron, "better than nothing" is hardly enough.

These days, you can find surgical masks easily at a variety of brick-and-mortar retailers as well as online, and they're the same price or cheaper than their cloth alternatives. In short, there's no reason to rely on a cloth mask alone anymore. 

Remember that surgical masks are designed for one-time-use only. That may make them less sustainable than cloth, but it's also part of what makes them safer.

Double-masking is even better

But wait – don't throw away your cloth masks just yet. Two masks are better than one, and cloth masks come in handy for double-masking. 

Bob Bollinger, professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and founder of Emocha Health, previously told CNET that if you can't find an N95-style respirator, "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."

Double-masking not only adds more layers of material, but it also improves the fit and seal of both masks, if you choose the right cloth mask to put on top (one that fits snugly without gaps).

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Make sure your mask fits correctly

Speaking of fit, that's one of the most important factors when it comes to face coverings, whether cloth, surgical or N95. Even a medical-grade N95 respirator won't live up to its full potential for protection if it doesn't create a tight seal on the face, with no gaps. That's why health care professionals are individually fitted for their respirators. For regular citizens with especially petite or large faces, it can be tough to find an N95 that does the trick. Also, thanks to that tight seal and thicker material, N95s can be uncomfortable to wear all day if you're not used to them. These are all reasons that it's good to know your other options.

Tighten the seal with a mask brace or mask fitter

Like N95s, surgical masks need to fit properly to achieve their full protective potential. But in many cases, there are gaps around the edges of the mask. (If you wear glasses, you can see the air leakage for yourself in the form of fog on your lenses.)

One way to significantly improve the seal and fit of your surgical mask is to use a mask brace or mask fitter. These are rubber or silicone devices that go over your mask, creating a tighter seal around the top, bottom and sides. 

Studies show that these devices dramatically improve the filtration efficiency of surgical masks. They're inexpensive, especially considering that you can continue to use the same mask brace with multiple disposable masks. You can even make your own out of rubber bands.

You can also improve the fit of your mask in key ways, per the CDC. Use surgical masks with an adjustable nose wire to prevent gaps at the top. Knot the ear loops of the mask to tighten the sides.

Another handy invention is mask tape, which you can use to manually close any gaps and prevent slipping.

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Lengthen the life of your N95, KN95 or KF94

If cost or low stock is a major deterrent for you when it comes to N95s, KN95s or KF94s, you should know that these respirators aren't one-time-use only, like surgical masks. You can reuse them multiple times, as long as you let each mask sit for a while before reusing. 

To use this method, put your mask directly into a paper bag after use. This allows for a neutralization period of sorts, ensuring that the mask is safe and virus-free the next time you put it on. 

"It's not the bag that's doing the magic trick, it's actually the process of keeping the mask away from decontaminating someone else or a surface, and also keeping a dry environment in order for the virus to not spread or stay on the mask," Dr. Jessica Shepherd, VeryWell Health's chief medical officer, told New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL4.

The mask needs to sit for at least 24 to 48 hours in a dry place, experts say. In order to have a clean mask to wear every day, you'll need to have a few on hand so that you can rotate them out. Each mask should have its own paper bag, labeled with a number for easy tracking.

"For an N95, we'd recommend you switch (the mask) every day," Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, told USA Today. "But, you can rotate them. If you have three masks, (for example), you could number them and switch them around."

As long as the fit is still intact and the mask is unsoiled, you can continue to recycle your mask, though health officials recommend limiting reuse to five times per mask. Still, if you can get your hands on at least five N95s or KN95s, that could last you about a month using this method.

Note that there is no way to fully sanitize your N95 at home, only in professional settings. Health care workers should not reuse respirators except in crisis scenarios, as outlined by the CDC.

Consistency is key

According to the Washington Post, the CDC's "updated guidance is expected to say that the best mask is the one that is worn consistently and correctly." CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reiterated that message at a recent White House briefing: "Any mask is better than no mask."

So, if you can consistently get your hands on a N95, KN95 or KF94 that fits your budget and face -- and if you're comfortable reliably wearing them -- then you should absolutely do so. But if not, the recommendations above will help keep you as safe as possible when you're in situations where masking is necessary

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.