It’s time to layer up: health officials are starting to recommend wearing two masks to help stem the staggering number of coronavirus cases spreading across the country.
By now—nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic responsible for over 2 million deaths globally—you know exactly where to buy face masks and you probably have one to match every WFH sweat suit. But you may have recently spotted the double mask trend (it was all over the inauguration, on the sidelines of sporting events, and proudly worn by Dr. Fauci), which is basically exactly what it sounds like—layering two masks on top of each other to more effectively stop the spread of coronavirus droplets. “Doubling up or pairing a washable cloth mask layer with an overlying disposable surgical mask has a few benefits of comfort, reusability, and being an effective viral barrier,” says Dr. Kathleen Jordan, SVP of Medical Affairs at women’s health provider Tia.
You can double mask two ways: with a cloth mask closest to your skin and a disposable surgical mask on top—”The inside cloth mask is washable and covers the side gaps often created by the disposable medical masks, and allows the wearer to reuse the surgical mask with it’s finer filtering power,” says Dr. Jordan—or the opposite way to protect a disposable mask from the elements.
“Layered masks should remain breathable, be easy to put on quickly, and the wearer should be happy to be seen in them,” says Dr. Jordan. “I’m loving the Instagram photos of everyone in masks at the Inauguration—it infuses a little bit of personal style and adds some fun to the proven filter of the surgical mask with an overlying cloth mask. These are great examples of embracing the essential public health measure of masking.”
Do I need to wear two masks?
“We now have virus variants that are even more contagious and we have very high prevalence in many of our communities—we need to get our mask wearing right,” says Dr. Jordan. So yes, double masking is a good idea.
Wearing two masks can be more effective than wearing one for two important reasons. Firstly, adding extra layers between your mouth and nose and the outside world means creating a more complicated barrier for virus particles to navigate, reducing your risk of infection. Secondly, wearing two masks, like a disposable face mask and a cute cloth mask, is more likely to eliminate gaps.
This can make a meaningful difference in your risk of infection and of unknowingly spreading the virus. “A surgical mask is about 80% effective in eliminating droplets, which is a very big deal, but it’s not a full 100%,” says Dr. Edgar Sanchez, infectious disease expert at Orlando Health. “So if you add another mask on top of that, that 80% effectiveness goes even higher.” (If you have an N95 mask—the gold standard in filtration—keep in mind, that means the mask is 95% effective at blocking airborne particles. Great, but still not 100% effective. Adding an additional cloth layer couldn’t hurt.)
You may be thinking: If two is better than one, why stop there? But there is too much of a good thing in this case. “If it’s too tight and you can’t breathe through it, you’re not likely going to be able to keep that on. You want something that fits comfortably that you can wear for hours at a time so that you can stay protected,” says Dr. Sanchez.
“Invest in a mask that you are comfortable wearing,” adds Dr. Jordan. “A mask worn on your neck and not over your mouth and nose provides no protection.”
When should I wear two masks?
If you’re walking the dog in a space where you’re unlikely to run into many people, you probably don’t need to double mask, says Dr. Sanchez. But if you’re in a closed or crowded space, like an airport or taxi, it’s a wise idea. “The amount of time we spend with people paired with the heavier we are breathing and the closer we are to each other, the more risk we pose to one another,” says Dr. Jordan. “If being with others is necessary, wearing a well-fitted, quality, high filter mask or a combination of layered masks to achieve the same level of protection is advisable.”
And remember one mask is better than no mask. Whether you’re wearing one mask or two, make sure it completely covers your nose and mouth, that there are no major gaps on the sides of your mouth, and that you can breathe comfortably enough that you’re not tempted to take it off.