COVID-19 is a respiratory infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. More than 520 million people worldwide have gotten the virus since it was first discovered in late 2019.

Mask guidelines have changed many times since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as researchers have improved their understanding of the virus.

Studies have found that double-masking with a cloth mask over a surgical mask can offer a high level of protection. Additionally, masking offers prevents people with the virus from spreading it to others. This has led to a question: Is triple-masking even more effective?

Although triple-masking may theoretically offer more protection, it may also make it more difficult to breathe and isn’t currently recommended by any health authorities.

Keep reading to learn how effective masks are at protecting against COVID-19 and whether you may benefit from triple-masking.

The virus that causes COVID-19 most commonly enters your body through respiratory droplets. Masks help prevent these droplets from entering your body through your nose and mouth. The fewer droplets that make it through your mask, the higher your level of protection.

In a 2022 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers outline how wearing any type of mask lowers your chances of developing COVID-19 but that the level of protection varies between types:

Mask typeOdds of testing positive
Cloth mask56 percent lower
Surgical mask66 percent lower
N95 or KN95 respirator83 percent lower

Masks are most effective when you and a person with the virus are both wearing masks. In other words, it prevents both the person with the virus passing it onto others, and from others getting it. In a 2022 study, researchers found evidence that the chances of contracting COVID-19 are halved when both people wear a mask compared to unmasked exposure.

Many types of facial coverings are available to protect against COVID-19. Here are some of the most widely available options.

  • Cloth masks. According to the CDC, loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection. Finely woven and layered masks offer more protection.
  • Surgical masks. Disposable surgical masks are thin masks that cover your nose and mouth and offer better protection than cloth masks. The CDC recommends wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask for better protection.
  • NIOSH-approved respirators. Respirators approved by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offer the highest level of protection when worn properly. The most common type is the N95 respirator. Other types include the N99, N100, P95, P100, R95, R99, and R100 respirators.
  • Respirators that meet international standards. These respirators include KN95, DS2, DS3, FFP2, FFP3, KP95, and more. They offer a high level of protection, but about 60 percent of these respirators evaluated by NIOSH didn’t meet the standard indicated.
  • Masks with a plastic panel. Masks with a plastic panel are useful for people interacting with people who need to see the shape of your mouths, such as people who are deaf or young children. These masks are reserved for healthcare workers and people who require them.

Research suggests that wearing two masks can help decrease your chances of developing COVID-19, but the effects of wearing three masks haven’t been evaluated. No medical organizations currently recommend triple masking.

The level of protection a mask provides depends on the number of airborne particles that are able to get through a mask. Masks with a tighter weave of material and thicker masks offer better protection than thinner masks with loosely woven material.

N95 respirators, which offer a very high level of protection, are designed to filter out 95 percent of particles as small as 300 nanometers. Respiratory droplets from talking, coughing, or sneezing are much larger at about 5,000 nanometers. In a 2021 study, researchers found that surgical masks blocked 42 to 88 percent of particles from 60 to 4,000 nanometers.

Double and tripling masking

According to a February 2021 report published by the CDC, studies suggest that wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask increases your protection by more than 90 percent for particles considered most important for transmitting COVID-19.

Wearing a third mask is likely to create an even larger barrier and offer more protection from the COVID-19 virus. However, wearing more masks can make it even harder to breathe and may be uncomfortable. You might find it particularly hard to breathe if you have underlying respiratory issues.

Wearing a third mask may also interfere with the way your mask fits against your face, causing air to leak through the sides of your masks and compromising your protection.

Wearing a mask is an important step in protecting yourself against COVID-19. To get the most out of your mask:

  • Wash or sanitize your hands before putting on your mask.
  • Inspect your mask for damage before putting it on.
  • Wash cloth masks at least once a day or when they become dirty.
  • Don’t wear your mask when it’s wet or dirty.
  • When you take your mask off while eating, put it somewhere you can keep it clean.
  • Change surgical masks at least every 4 hours and don’t reuse them.
  • Don’t share masks with other people.
  • Make sure your mask is snug to your face and check for gaps.
  • Wash your hands again after removing your mask.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about masks for COVID-19.

Do I still need to wear a mask?

Wearing a mask can help reduce your chances of getting COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. You may not legally need to wear a mask in your state, but wearing one can still decrease your chances of getting sick.

Do I have to wear a mask even if I’m vaccinated?

If you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to develop COVID-19 or severe illness. However, it’s still possible to get COVID-19. Wearing a mask can offer additional protection in crowded spaces and public areas with poor ventilation.

Where is mask-wearing still required?

On May 3, the CDC released a statement that it recommends everybody over age 2 wear a mask on public transport. Each state has its own laws about when wearing a mask is mandatory. To stay up to date with the latest rules, it’s best to check your state website.

Wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask can help decrease your chances of developing COVID-19. However, no authority body currently recommends wearing three masks. Wearing three masks may make it difficult to breathe and interfere with keeping your masks snug to your face.

NIOSH-approved respirators are the most effective masks for preventing COVID-19 when worn properly.