Even though the public health emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, there are still situations where you may want or need to wear a mask. Even if it’s not to protect yourself from COVID-19, the face masks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended may reduce your risk of picking up other airborne illnesses, like colds, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the flu.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, director of the UCI Program in Public Health at the University of California Irvine explains that masks can still be beneficial in crowded public areas like in hospitals, on public transit, or at events like sports games and concerts.
With several different face mask options available, though, it’s not easy to figure out which one you should be wearing at any given time. Do you need an N95 or a KN95 (and what’s the difference between the two)? Can you get away with a surgical mask? And what about one you can wear comfortably all day at the office? We asked experts to help us understand when you should choose one mask over another. We then compared more than two dozen COVID-19 face masks to find the best ones for different needs. Here are our picks.
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Editor’s Note: New COVID-19 Variant to Watch
On July 19th, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) added the new EG.5 to its list of circulating COVID-19 variants. This new strain, nicknamed "Eris" is becoming the dominant strain across the United States and Britain. This is in part due to its ability to avoid antibodies and enter cells more easily. If you begin to experience symptoms, be sure test yourself and wear a mask when it's not possible to isolate.
3M 9205+ Aura Particulate N95 Respirator
Offers the highest level of protection
Doesn’t put pressure on ears
Has a nose clip and soft inner fabric
If you want the highest level of protection against COVID-19, it’s an N95 respirator, says Brad Hutton, MPH, public health consultant at Hutton Health Consulting and former Deputy Commissioner of Public Health at the New York State Department of Health. Not only do these provide the closest fit on the face, but they also filter out a higher percentage of small, virus-sized particles.
There are many N95s on the market, but we like the 3M 9205+ Aura Particulate N95 Respirator because 3M is a trusted and well-known brand, and this respirator can effectively filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. The mask also comes approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It includes a few features that make it more comfortable than some other N95s, like an adjustable nose clip and a contoured top section.
The nose clip makes it easier to wear glasses or protective eyewear along with your mask. There’s also a three-panel design that’s less likely to shift around while you’re talking or going about your day. Meanwhile, the straps fit around the back of your head, not your ears, which is an added comfort for many people, especially with prolonged use.
Price at time of publication: $20
Material: Cotton | Quantity: 20 | Layers: Not specified | Colors: White
Halidodo 60 Packs Individually Wrapped KN95 Face Mask
Although N95 and KN95 respirators are the most effective type of mask you can buy, they’re also some of the more expensive ones, too. We like that the HALIDODO KN95 Face Mask gives you a high level of protection without breaking your budget by offering a 60-pack of masks in a variety of colors for less than $20. That breaks down to less than $0.35 per mask, which is a steal.
Low cost isn’t the only thing these masks have going for them: They are made with five layers of non-woven fabric to offer protection against 95% or more of airborne particles, comfortable elastic ear loops, and adjustable nose clips. Plus, they’re individually wrapped, making it even more convenient to stock up on these and take them along with you or hand them out. One box comes with six different color options inside, so you can wear different masks and coordinate them with your clothing.
Price at time of publication: $18
Material: Non-woven fabric | Quantity: 60 | Layers: 5 | Colors: Multi
FriCARE Adult ASTM Level 3 Disposable Face Masks
ASTM Level 3 protection
Reinforced ear loops
Extra breathing space
Even though N95s are the gold standard of COVID-19 face masks, there’s still a time and place for surgical masks. We like the three layers of nonwoven fabric protection built into the FriCARE Adult ASTM Level 3 Disposable Face Mask, which also provides the highest level of pathogen protection (ASTM Level 3) found among surgical, medical-grade masks.
Other things we like? These surgical masks come in a variety of colors, have reinforced ear loops to prevent breakage, and are affordable at less than $15 for 50. We also appreciate that the innermost layer of the mask is not only soft and comfortable but also designed to be breathable enough to reduce the amount of fogging up for glasses-wearers. As these masks are a little larger than average (to allow for that breathing space), they may have an awkward fit for smaller faces.
Price at time of publication: $14
Material: Non-woven fabric | Quantity: 50 | Layers: 3 | Colors: Multi
Best Secure Fit
Funight KN95 Face Masks 50 Pack
A secure fit isn’t always the most comfortable fit for the user, but there are times when you have to prioritize fit over comfort when it comes to COVID-19. The Funight KN95 Face Mask, however, doesn’t even make you choose. It’s a customer favorite for secure coverage, utilizing wide ear loops and a medium-weight thickness to give you a snug fit without being too constricting.
This is one of the only masks we researched that was consistently described as having zero gaps once fitted to the face. So, if total coverage is what you’re looking for, this mask won’t disappoint. Meanwhile, five layers of nonwoven fabric protect against most airborne particulates, and the entire mask is streamlined to fit your face while still being breathable.
Price at time of publication: $20
Material: Non-woven fabric | Quantity: 50 | Layers: 5 | Colors: Multi
Best for Long Wear
PERFORMOTOR 50 PCS Black Disposable Face Masks
Unless you’re a healthcare professional, you probably don’t need to wear an N95 for prolonged periods of time, but even surgical masks can get annoying and uncomfortable after hours of use. The PM Performotor Black Disposable Face Mask doesn’t look like anything special, but it excels with long-term wear, holding up to a full day’s worth of contained breathing without getting damp on the inside or loose and sloppy on the outside.
It’s also constructed to be well-fitting and effective. It has three layers of nonwoven fabric, with a waterproof outer layer, a soft and adjustable nose clip, and ultra-stretchy ear loops for a universal fit. It’s durable, comfortable, and protective, which makes it perfect for long masked-up days.
Price at time of publication: $6
Material: Non-woven fabric | Quantity: 50 | Layers: 3 | Colors: Black
Best for Preventing Fogged Glasses
HALYARD FLUIDSHIELD Level 3 Disposable Face Mask
Don’t ask us exactly how the Halyard Fluidshield Level 3 Disposable Face Mask works to prevent your eyeglasses from fogging up. Just trust us when we say that out of all the masks we researched, this one seemed to have the most success in reducing the plight of not being able to see through your lenses when you’re wearing a face mask.
We also like the mask’s other features, which include ASTM Level 3 protection, outer protection against fluid transmission, and a slightly-cushioned nose bridge for extra comfort.
Price at time of publication: $14
Material: Not specified | Quantity: 40 | Layers: Not specified | Colors: Orange
Graf lantz Regular Zenbu Organic Cotton Face Mask - Ear Band
Adjustable ear loops
Dense cotton twill
If you’re in the market for a new cloth mask, we suggest the Regular Zenbu Organic Cotton Face Mask because it’s made from densely-woven cotton twill, meaning it’s more protective than many other types of cloth masks. Plus, it’s organic and made from Oeko-Tex® Certified cotton twill, which means it’s soft and breathable rather than stiff and uncomfortable.
We love that the Zenbu mask features adjustable ear loops for a no-pinch fit, a metal noseband, and a filter pocket if you want to add an extra layer of protection. It comes in two sizes, too, so you’re more likely to get a proper fit, and has sewn-in darts to help the mask cup your face without pressing up against your mouth. If you want a cloth mask, this is the blend of comfort and function you’re looking for.
Price at time of publication: $23
Material: Cotton twill | Quantity: 1 | Layers: not specified | Colors: Multi
Best for Kids
4cair AireTrust Nano Mask for Kids
Up to 99% filtration
Schools, playgrounds, and camps can be breeding grounds for COVID-19 in children, which is why it’s important to find a safe, secure, and comfortable mask to keep our little ones protected. We like the 4C Air AireTrust Nano Mask for Kids, which is protective and secure without being too intrusive. Made from a patented material using nanotechnology (i.e. the science of super small matter), the AireTrust Nano Mask is paper thin yet blocks up to 99% of airborne particles.
In other words, it’s breathable without skimping on virus protection, and its other features—like adjustable ear loops and nose clip—make it a good fit for most kids, even ones who are understandably picky about masks. As a total bonus, this mask is also available in medium and large sizes, so it can grow with your kids or even fit older family members, too.
Price at time of publication: $20 for a pack of 5
Material: Nanomaterial | Quantity: 5 | Layers: Not specified | Colors: White
Best for Allergy Prone People
FuturePPE Mesh PRIMO Reusable Sport Mask
Wearing the Brookwood Medical FuturePPE Mesh Sports Face Mask may look and feel cumbersome but it’s a small price to pay when you’re trying to protect yourself from COVID-19 while also working out and battling allergies.
The Brookwood Medical sports mask is designed for people who need multiple types of particulate protection during physical activity, whether it's environmental pollutants like dust, smog, or pollen, or virus-borne illnesses like COVID-19. And it does it with five layers of filtration, including a replaceable filter to prolong the life of your mask.
Since this mask is designed for activity, it features a wide band that loops securely around the back of your head. But, in spite of this mask’s “extra-ness,” you don’t have to worry about breathability due to the one-way breathing valves on both sides of the mask help prevent fogging and overheating.
Price at time of publication: $18
Material: Nylon | Quantity: 1 | Layers: 5 | Colors: Multi
Blox N95 part BLX-9501 medical use
If you want the protection of an N95 mask but hate how hard it is to breathe comfortably in one, you might want to try the Blox N95 Mask Respirator. It functions exactly the same as a traditional N95, except the front seam faces outward in a horizontal direction rather than a vertical one (which gives the mask a duckbill appearance, hence the name). The advantage, according to people who prefer this style, is easier breathing. It’s harder to suck the mask inward as you talk and breathe when the seam cuts across your face instead of up and down.
In addition to the duckbill style, we like a few other things about the Blox mask, like its NIOSH-approved construction designed to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. And the head straps are fastened in a unique way. Instead of two straps attached from two different points (top and bottom) on the mask, there’s one central attachment point that the straps angle out from around the back of your head. This can be more comfortable than the double-strap designs, and when you combine the added comfort of the duckbill style, we think this may be one of the comfier N95 masks out there.
Price at time of publication: $3
Material: polypropylene | Quantity: 10 | Layers: 4 | Colors: White
How We Selected the Best Face Masks
To compile our list of the best COVID-style face masks on the market today, we researched which types of masks are most effective. These are generally considered to be N95 or KN95 masks, so many of our choices are the most protective type of mask you can find. For these types of masks, we also made sure they were approved by NIOSH.
But N95 masks aren’t always practical or a good fit for some people, so we looked to other qualities to find alternatives, focusing on comfort, fit, material, and overall wearability. We also included durable masks that hold up well to multiple uses and can be worn in special circumstances—like for long periods of time or with eyeglasses.
Finally, we asked two experts for their input on choosing the right face mask for your individual needs:
- Brad Hutton, MPH, public health consultant at Hutton Health Consulting and former Deputy Commissioner of Public Health at the New York State Department of Health
- Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, director of the UCI Program in Public Health at the University of California Irvine
What to Look for in a Face Mask
Comfort and Fit
The CDC has always stated that the best mask for any individual is “the most protective mask you can [wear] that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
Ideally, the mask you choose to wear will immediately feel comfortable and well-fitted, but if it’s not, Hutton says to look for masks that can be adjusted enough to fit properly, “Choose a product that attaches with straps behind the head and neck…[and] masks with nose wires, so you can form the mask to the edge of your face and reduce leaks.”
Material and Layers
You can get masks made from cotton, nylon, polyester, and polypropylene or other microplastics. In general, the more layers to a mask and the tighter the weave, the more protection it offers. Surgical masks, for example, are often made with three to five layers of non-woven polypropylene fabric and can protect you against infected droplets (and help protect other people from your droplets).
According to Hutton, N95 respirators provide more protection than cloth or nylon masks, which can’t do much to guard against inhaling viral-sized particles. If you need to wear a cloth mask and are looking for more protection, you’ll need to choose a multi-layered mask or pair a cloth mask with a surgical mask.
Earlier in the pandemic, says Hutton, when masks were scarce and in high demand, there were concerns about counterfeit respirators being sold to consumers. Some companies were manufacturing masks and indicating they were NIOSH-approved when they weren’t.
Hutton explained that the counterfeits were definitely a concern due to the comparative lack of protection and the higher probability of them being damaged or compromised.
While it’s still important to make sure your N95 respirator is a legitimate product, masks aren't as scarce as they were in 2020 or even 2021, and it’s not as difficult to find masks that are genuinely NIOSH-approved.
Different styles of face masks (N95, KN95, KF94, surgical, and cloth) all provide different levels of protection against COVID-19 and other airborne illnesses. Generally, the protection levels break down like this:
- N95s and KN95s: Most effective
- KF94s: Highly effective
- Surgical: Moderately effective
- Cloth: Somewhat effective (a cloth mask might be better than no mask)
That doesn’t mean you always need an N95, however, or that you shouldn’t bother with surgical masks. In general, you can choose the mask with the most protection you and/or the people around you need in any given situation. In a shopping center, for example, you may only need a surgical mask, but in a hospital or elderly care facility, it may be best to wear an N95.
Dr. Boden-Albala suggests that for everyday activities, a surgical mask would be the most economical and comfortable when it comes to protecting against larger particle droplets. If it’s worn properly, it’ll help block any sprays or splatter that can come from your nose or mouth, which cause COVID-19 and other sicknesses.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a surgical mask and an N95 mask?
According to Dr. Boden-Albala, the biggest difference between a surgical mask and an N95 mask is that surgical masks don’t filter or block very small particles in the air because they don’t give you a tight-enough facial fit. N95 masks are most commonly used in healthcare settings, she adds, because of their efficiency in filtering airborne particles.
A disposable surgical mask should typically be used once and is great for activities in public settings. But if you’re up close and personal with people, such as visiting family members, Dr. Boden-Albala recommends wearing an N95.
How many times can you reuse a KN95 or N95 mask?
At this point, says Hutton, it’s more important to pay attention to the condition of your mask than the number of times you’ve worn it. If you have been in contact with any sick individuals, or it's visibly dirty or damaged, you need to discard your mask for a new one. But if your mask is not contaminated, you can reuse it up to five times before you discard it for a new one.
How long is a face mask effective?
Again, it’s not so much about the timeline as it is about where your mask has been and if it’s still in good condition. Surgical masks are typically recommended for single-use only and cloth masks should be washed after each use. But Hutton says you can get more life out of your respirator as long as it isn’t wet, damaged, or dirty, or no longer fits properly on your face.
Why Trust Verywell Health
Sarah Bradley has been a freelance writer since 2017, tackling health commerce articles, product reviews, and shopping guides on everything from dry skin moisturizers and wart removers to menstrual cups and toothbrushes for braces. She has written about COVID topics many times, including a tested review of the best at-home COVID tests, and spent a lot of the pandemic searching for face masks that fit her family’s style and budget.