A bartender in a face mask serves a customer without a face mask.Share on Pinterest
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  • Without mask mandates, some people may be wondering if there is any benefit to wearing a face mask among unmasked people.
  • Experts say you can still protect yourself wearing a mask as long as you pick the right mask.
  • An N95, which filters out 95 percent of particulates, is ideal because it provides the most protection.
  • Masks such as KN95 or KF94 may also provide a similar amount of protection.

With mask mandates seeming to become a thing of the past, many of us are still not ready to go without them in public.

While it’s true that masks work best when everyone has one on, the good news is that you will still benefit from wearing one even if nobody else is — especially if that mask is an N95 mask.

“For someone looking to reduce their own risk of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2, wearing a mask will do that,” said Dr. Scott Weisenberg, clinical associate professor, Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and director of the Infectious Disease Fellowship Program. “The higher the quality, the better it would work, and the N95 would be the most effective of the masks currently available.”

Experts recommend using an N95 mask because of the amount of protection they provide. The Mayo Clinic writes that N95 masks filter out both large and small particles when a person breathes in or out.

N95 masks are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and can block at least 95 percent of particles.

The filtration efficiency for particles of surgical masks is 42-88 percent, according to Aerosol and Air Quality Research, while cloth masks filter out 16-23 percent, and bandanas filter out 9 percent.

KN95 and KF94 masks are similar to N95 masks in that they aim to filter out over 95 and 94 percent of particulates, respectively, but they are not regulated by NIOSH. A KN95 mask is supposed to meet Chinese regulatory standards, and the KF94 is supposed to meet Korean regulatory standards.

However, some counterfeit versions of these masks have been sold that may not meet these standards.

Even an N95 won’t work very well if you don’t wear the mask properly.

The easiest way to tell if you’re wearing an N95 mask properly is to check for gaps.

“In healthcare, we have a system that requires testing by trained professionals [to make sure the masks fit]. I think from a public standpoint, unless they have access to that test, they should look for any gaps at the edge of the mask,” said Weisenberg.

Dr. Christina Liscynesky, an infectious disease expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, seconds the seal check. She recommends using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) methods to test the seal. The CDC recommends:

  • Wash and dry your hands before handling the N95.
  • Always inspect the N95 for damage before use. Damage can include being dirty or damp.
  • Hold the N95 in your hand with the nose piece at your fingertips.
  • Place the N95 under your chin with the nose piece bar at the top.
  • Pull the top strap over your head, placing it near the crown. Pull the bottom strap over and place it at the back of your neck. Do not criss-cross the snaps.
  • Place your fingers at the top of the nose piece to mold it to the shape of your nose.

The N95 must form a seal to the face to work properly, meaning that your breath must pass through the mask and not around the edges. Be aware of any jewelry, glasses, or facial hair that can cause gaps. Being clean-shaven is more effective.

Of course, while the use of N95 masks is proven to be highly effective, even if you are the only one wearing one, there are other factors at play. No method is completely risk-free except isolation, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Other factors to consider include how much time you are exposed to people who aren’t wearing masks, as well as the ventilation of where you are.

“People can still modify their risk by avoiding high-risk settings, such as being indoors in poorly ventilated areas,” said Weisenberg. “Everyone has to make their own decisions about what is right for them and their individual risk.”

But sometimes some settings are impossible to avoid, like traveling on airplanes, which these days is becoming more and more commonplace.

These settings make it difficult to avoid people.

On airplanes, cabin air is filtered through HEPA filters (high-efficiency particulate air) that are proven to reduce virus transmission. But on subways, buses, and other modes of transportation, the air may not be filtered as effectively.

Adding an N95 mask to your commute can reduce the risk of getting sick.