A man wears a KN95 face mask.Share on Pinterest
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  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge tested seven different hacks for surgical and KN95 masks and found that two in particular improved mask fit.
  • That said, these more effective methods also increased the discomfort for the wearer.
  • Using tape or nylon tights can help decrease the gaps between the mask and your face.

Countries around the world may be relaxing their COVID-19 protocols and mandates, but that does not mean that the pandemic is over.

As of February 2, the 7-day moving average of daily new cases in the United States was 378,015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is down 37.6 percent compared with the previous 7-day moving average, but the number of new cases remains high.

Many people are still committed to safety protocols, including mask wearing, even when their community around them is not.

Improving the fit of KN95 and surgical masks is essential to the effectiveness of a face mask, so researchers have been looking into a variety of hacks. The downside? Some of these hacks decrease the comfort of the masks, which can discourage people who need to mask up for longer periods of time.

Healthline reached out to experts for tips on how to stay most protected, as well as comfortable.

What is the best way to ensure a proper fit for a face mask to protect against COVID-19?

Face masks come in many shapes and sizes, as do our faces, and it’s not a guarantee that one size or shape of face mask fits all. More often than not, gaps can be seen around the mouth or nose.

“A proper fitting mask will help to reduce your exposure to COVID-19,” said Dr. Eric Ascher, family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital. “When I test masks with patients, I have my patients blow out air in a circle. If you feel the air escaping and hitting your face, the mask is not tight enough.”

Researchers from the University of Cambridge recently tested seven different hacks for surgical and KN95 masks and found that two in particular improved mask fit in a report published in PLOS ONE. That said, these more effective methods also increased the discomfort for the wearer.

“We’ve seen lots of anecdotal evidence of people hacking their masks to better fit the shape of their face, but we wanted to validate whether any of these hacks actually work, as very little research has been done in this area,” said Eugenia O’Kelly from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, the paper’s first author, in a statement.

The first method to succeed was to seal the edges with cloth tape, while the other was pressing the mask to the face with nylon tights. These helped prevent air from entering or exiting the mask.

O’Kelly said that these hacks were successful but they were concerned that they were too uncomfortable for people to widely adopt them.

“For most of the hacks, comfort was a big issue,” said O’Kelly in the statement. “The rubber bands for example, tended to put painful pressure on the ears and face, to the point where they hindered circulation to the ears. However, using an effective but uncomfortable hack may make good sense in some high-risk situations, where the discomfort is worth it for the added protection, but it would be harder to wear these hacks day in and day out.”

What are the best masks to ensure complete protection against COVID-19?

For face masks, finding the right balance between having the highest level of protection with the least amount of discomfort is key.

Cloth masks have become popular, but with the highly transmissible Omicron variant going around, experts say a high-grade medical mask is better. N95s and KN95s, which are respiratory masks, are designed to filter out particles to keep people safe.

The N95 is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to filter out 95 percent of particles. A KN95 mask is expected to reach similar protection under the Chinese standard. But experts have warned that counterfeit KN95 masks are being sold widely.

There are key features in a face mask that can provide protection.

“At the very least, wearing a 3-ply medical-grade mask when indoors is very important,” said Ascher. “Double making with a fabric mask covering a medical-grade mask will allow a tighter seal of the medical-grade mask, also helping to filter out more COVID-19 particles. The tighter the fit of the medical-grade mask, the safer it is.”

It’s important to note that cloth masks alone do not protect against smaller air particles that can cause COVID-19 or allow for a tight seal.

Ascher says, “Pinching the nose and placing a fabric mask over your medical-grade mask will allow for a tighter seal. If you do feel the air come out, then it is unlikely COVID-19 particles can make their way in. If you wear glasses while masked and the glasses fog, it is unlikely your mask is on tight enough.”

How can someone stay safe and protected if others around them refuse to wear masks?

Simply wearing a medical-grade mask around others, even if they are unmasked, helps protect you from developing COVID-19.

“If you are at an event wearing an N95 or KN95 mask, you have approximately 2 and a half hours of protection if someone surrounding you has COVID-19 and is not masked,” said Ascher. “You have approximately 30 minutes if you are wearing a surgical mask and no one else is masked.”

He added that if everyone is in a surgical mask (and wearing it properly), you will have 1 hour of protection against COVID-19 if someone else at the event is positive.

“Wearing your mask properly means covering your mouth and nose,” said Ascher. “Based on how contagious Omicron is, it is in your best interest to wear a mask that offers the most amount of protection when indoors.”

Ascher added that vaccinations and boosters, as well as proper masking, are still the best lines of defense.