The 4 Best Face Coverings for One-Way Masking, According to Expert Guidelines

Even with mask mandates lifting for airplanes and public transit, you can still protect yourself from COVID-19 exposure with these N95, KN95, KF94, and double surgical masks.

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Woman on an airplane is texting on her smart phone. She's wearing a protective face mask.
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Mask mandates are being lifted around the country inspiring glee and spontaneous singing for some, while others see the change with trepidation, especially those who are immunocompromised or have children who aren't yet eligible for the vaccine. Just last week, a federal judge in Florida ruled that the CDC's mask mandate on public transportation was unlawful and lifted the requirement, making face coverings optional on airplanes and other public transit in the U.S.

One of the first questions on many peoples' minds is if one-way masking (wearing a mask when no one else around you is wearing one) will offer any protection. According to health experts, the answer is a resounding yes, but the type of mask that you wear matters. The best options for one-way masking are N95, KN95, KF94, and double surgical masks.

One-way masking still provides significant protection against respiratory droplets and other particles that carry disease. This protection, however, is contingent on the mask being multi-layered and fitting properly across the nose and face. "If you wear a high-quality mask like a N95, KN95, or KF94, it will keep out viral particles," explains Purvi Parikh, MD, allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health. "Even surgical masks are good if [they are] double-masked." Masks that don't make the cut? According to Parikh, cloth masks, bandanas, gaiters, and other face coverings that aren't medical grade don't offer sufficient protection.

While layering two surgical masks can offer protection, well-fitting respirators continue to be the best line of defense, according to the CDC. Respirators such as the N95 and KN95 are designed and tested to meet international standards and filter at least 95% of particles in the air. KF94 masks are essentially N95 masks but made in South Korea, which is known for having high standards when it comes to PPE production, and filter out at least 94% of particles, making them a great choice for COVID-19 protection.

Whether or not you decide to wear a mask in public is now largely up to you. Both Parikh and the CDC still recommend wearing masks in enclosed spaces with people you don't live with (e.g., public transport) for effective prevention against COVID-19. "Planes luckily have very good HEPA filtration that helps filter air, however, risk is higher now that others aren't masking," she says. "The places I worry about the most are buses and trains and other public transport without good filtration or ventilation."

Despite mandates being lifted, the CDC guidelines remain clear: "Wearing a well-fitted mask along with vaccination, self-testing, and physical distancing, helps protect you and others by reducing the chance of spreading COVID-19." The ideal scenario would be that everyone wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, of course, but if you're the only one in the room (train, bus, or plane) wearing one, rest assured that you will have a high level of protection. In fact, a CDC study published in February 2022, suggests that wearing a well-fitting respirator (N95 or KN95) decreases your chances of testing positive for COVID-19 by 83%, and even a single surgical mask can decrease the risk of contracting the virus by 66%.

If you do choose to wear a mask going forward, the picks below will help protect you even when you're the only masked person around. Keep scrolling for the best face coverings for one-way masking.

4 Best Face Masks for One-Way Protection:

Best N95: Kimberly-Clark Professional N95 Pouch Respirator

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N95 respirator masks are often considered the gold standard when it comes to protective personal equipment outside of the hospital setting. The Kimberly-Clark version is among those approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and they have been shown to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. The duckbill-style mask features a spacious breathing chamber, over-the-head straps in place of ear loops, an adjustable nose piece, and face-forming edges that offer a tight seal. With 50 to a pack, you'll have plenty to get you through your daily commute or vacation travel.

Best KN95: Newmark/Jinhua Jiadaifu Medical Supplies Co KN95 Mask

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While KN95 mask counterfeits run rampant, these Newmark/Jinhua Jiadaifu masks have been tested by the CDC's National Personal Protective Technology Lab as effective in blocking more than 95% of air particles. The masks are made with five layers of protection, an adjustable noseband that helps create a better seal (for better protection), and comfortable, lightweight ear loops, which make them slightly more bearable to wear for long periods of time in comparison to other N95 mask options.

Best KF94: HappyDay KF94 Face Masks

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KF94 masks are the Korean version of N95 respirators and undergo strict testing before being certified by the Korean Ministry of Health. HappyDay masks are highly ranked because they are made with four layers of filter material to block at least 94% of fine particles. In addition, their wire support is designed to fit snug against your nose bridge to prevent fogging and slipping. These are available in white and black, perfect for those who prefer dark masks to avoid dirt and stains.

Best Surgical Masks: DemeTech ASTM Surgical Mask

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Surgical masks are the least protective on the list, but they can be a good option in a pinch as long as you are double-masking, according to experts. These disposable pleated masks from DemeTech feature three layers of material. The first layer is designed to protect the user against fluids, the second layer filters 90% of airborne particles, and the third layer provides additional comfort for extended use, according to the manufacturer. These surgical masks are available in kids and adult sizes and can be ordered in a variety of colors, including black, green, purple, pink, and yellow.

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