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Q: Is it still OK to use a cloth mask? What kind of mask should I be using to protect against COVID-19 and the Omicron variant?

Face masks continue to be a critical tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the most important thing to know is that any mask is better than no mask. Some masks provide more protection than others. At the same time, some masks may be more uncomfortable for you or difficult to wear. That’s why the CDC recommends that you wear the most protective mask that fits you well and that is comfortable enough that you will wear it consistently.

Cloth masks are generally the least effective option. Cloth face coverings with a loose weave or single layer (including “gaiters” or masks made of a mesh-like material) provide little protection either to protect you from COVID-19 or to prevent you from spreading it to others. If you do use a cloth mask, choose one that is tightly woven with multiple layers. Look for fabric that blocks the light when you hold it up to the sun or a bright light.

Disposable surgical masks offer a higher level of protection. These masks are also sometimes called medical masks or procedure masks. Make sure surgical masks have a proper fit over your nose, mouth, and chin, adjust the nose wire to close gaps over your nose, and knot the ear loops for a tighter fit.

KN95 respirators can offer an even higher level of protection. If they meet international standards and fit properly, they can protect you both from transmitting COVID-19 and being infected by others. However, it’s important to know that there are many poor-quality KN95 masks on the market that don’t meet the standards they advertise. If you use these respirators, buy them from a trusted source to make sure you are getting the level of protection you’re paying for.

N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection. These respirators have been approved by US safety regulators to meet specific quality requirements. When they fit properly, they filter 95% of particles in the air. Look for N95 respirators that seal tightly to your face.

No matter which style face covering you use, avoid masks that have exhalation valves, vents, or other openings, replace your mask when it gets wet or dirty, and do not share masks with others. Also, please do your part and dispose of your used masks properly so they don’t end up littering our roads or oceans.