Which Face Masks Offer the Best Protection Against Coronavirus, Omicron, and Other Variants?

The battle against COVID-19 wages on as Omicron cases surge around the globe. In the last two weeks alone, cases in the United States have risen by roughly 240%, leaving many families wondering how they can stay safe from the rapidly spreading new variant. For now, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated and wearing face masks. Unfortunately, though, not all masks provide the same level of protection.

It’s a common misconception that all face masks protect you from breathing in the COVID-19 virus. Basic cloth and surgical masks are only intended to block your saliva from spreading to someone else. If you want to avoid breathing in other people’s germs, you need to wear an N95 mask.

In this guide, we’ll explain why certain masks are less effective, share information about the various strains of SARS-CoV-2, and clarify the differences between N95, KN95, and surgical face masks. Continue reading to learn how you can protect yourself and your family better.

What’s the Current State of COVID in the World?

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be much change. If anything, the virus seems to be spreading at a faster rate than ever. For the first time throughout the entire pandemic, the United States is recording as many as 300,000 cases a day and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Yet, despite the surge in cases, deaths are down 3%.  

Despite the scientific community’s diligent efforts to produce viable and effective vaccines, the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to mutate into new strains. Although the vaccines provide some level of protection against these new variants, they’re less effective and require additional boosters to reestablish protection. So, where does that leave the world?

Here's what we know about the most common variants currently dominating the world.

Delta Variant

The delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in India in late 2020 after the virus rapidly spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. Compared to previous variants of COVID-19, the delta variant is more contagious and more aggressive in its assault on the body. Compared to the alpha strain of COVID, delta caused more severe cold symptoms, including:

➔ Runny nose
➔ Sore throat
➔ Fever
➔ Headaches

    Coughing and a loss of appetite/smell/taste are less common with the delta variant but its increased risk of severe fever makes it more deadly than previous variants. Fortunately, the World Health Organization has tested and verified that vaccines are effective against the delta variant.

    Omicron Variant

    The omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in South Africa in the fall of 2021 after the country saw a surge in cases. Compared to the alpha and delta strains of COVID-19, omicron seems to spread faster yet doctors’ reports and preliminary data suggest that its symptoms are less severe, especially among vaccinated patients. Omicron symptoms include:

    ➔ A scratchy throat
    ➔ Fever
    ➔ Headaches
    ➔ Runny nose

      Symptoms appear to match the delta variant, with a lower risk of developing a cough or losing your sense of taste and smell. Yet, compared to delta, omicron patients seem to recover faster, helping lift some of the burdens from overwhelmed hospitals.

      Currently, the CDC, NIH, and WHO are studying how effective vaccines are against omicron, with some data showing that an added booster provides sufficient protection against the variant.

      Delmicron Variant

      The delmicron variant is a proposed new variant born from a cross between the delta and omicron strains. Although it’s not a verified strain of COVID-19, it is a concern for many Americans fearful that a cross-bread of the two variants could blend the severe symptoms of delta and the rapid contagiousness of omicron.

      The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have not commented nor confirmed a new strain, though, so for now, delmicron is entirely hypothetical.

      How Do Face Masks Protect Against COVID-19 Variants?

      When the coronavirus first began spreading around the world, our only protection was to wear face masks. Many people assumed that face masks protect us from breathing in the virus but this is a misconception.

      According to the United States CDC, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not an airborne disease. Instead, it spreads through contaminated droplets of saliva and mucous. While these droplets can become suspended in the air, they typically drop within just a few minutes. This means the virus cannot be classified as an airborne disease.

      The WHO and CDC first recommended wearing masks to prevent people from spreading their saliva into the air, i.e., masks keep your saliva from spreading to other people. They don’t protect you from breathing in other people’s saliva.

      Yet, as the pandemic has continued over the last two years, many people have become tired of wearing masks and stopped the practice entirely. So, how can you protect yourself now?

      Which Masks Provide the Best Protection Against COVID, Omicron, and Other Variants?

      Fortunately, some masks can protect you from breathing in other people’s contaminated saliva. You just have to know what to look for. In this section, we’ll explore a variety of masks and discuss how well they can protect you from COVID-19.

      Face Shields

      In theory, face shields are a wonderful idea. They create a large physical barrier between you and the surrounding environment. Any saliva or mucous you expel will simply be blocked by the shield. Yet, in practice, they are largely ineffective.

      Face shields leave massive gaps between your face and the shield. Any contaminated air you breathe in will simply pass behind the mask and into your lungs. If you want to wear a face shield, it’s best to wear it in tandem with a face mask.

      Cloth Face Masks 

      What’s not to like about cloth masks? They’re stylish, customizable, reusable, and often more comfortable than other masks. But are they effective protection against COVID-19? Unfortunately, no—cloth masks are the least effective protection against breathing in COVID-19.

      Cloth masks are usually made from a single layer of fabric, which isn’t thick enough to protect you or your surrounding friends from COVID-19. If the fabric is contaminated, you will be walking around with the equivalent of a petri dish secured to your face.

      Additionally, cloth masks are not made to fit. They often leave wide gaps that allow contaminated air to pass into your nasal passages. Some even come with ventilation valves that make it easier for the virus to enter your lungs. If you want protection, avoid these masks at all costs.

      Surgical Face Masks

      Surgical face masks are those loose-fitting blue and white 3-ply masks you’ve likely seen more of in the last 2 years than ever before in your life. They’re disposable and create a physical barrier between your mouth and nose and the surrounding environment. Although regulated under Federal Code 21 CFR 878.4040, surgical masks come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses.

      Thicker surgical masks provide more protection than thinner masks yet the overwhelming majority cannot protect you from breathing in contaminated air particles. Instead, they’re only meant to protect your mouth and nose from large splashes and droplets of mucous and saliva. They cannot filter or block out small particles or viruses.

      Think of blue and white surgical masks as protection for other people. By wearing one, you’ll protect your friends and family but you won’t be protecting yourself. Most surgical masks are not fitted tightly enough to block out contaminated air, nor are they thick enough.

      N95 Respirators

      N95 respirators are a more advanced face mask specifically designed to closely fit the face and block out small airborne particulate matter. They are highly effective and can filter out small, contaminated droplets of saliva. For this reason, N95 respirators are the most effective protection against COVID-19 and what you’ll find on the COVID treatment floor of an ICU.

      N95 masks are guaranteeing to create a complete seal around the mouth and nose. This way, you can breathe safely, without worrying that air is passing in or out without first being filtered.

      Because N95 respirators create such a tight seal, they may not be suitable for people with breathing conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or cardiac illnesses. Additionally, N95 respirators are not designed for children or anyone with thick facial hair. However, if you fit an N95 respirator, you won’t find much better protection.

      KN95 Face Masks

      There’s been a lot of confusion lately as to what KN95 masks are. Because they are so similarly named, many people assume that KN95 and N95 masks are the same—they are not! N95 masks are regulated under US standards. KN95 masks are made according to Chinese standards, though many go unregulated and are sold without ever being vetted.

      In theory, KN95 masks are meant to work like N95 masks. They should create a tight seal, protecting the mouth and nose from contaminated air particles. Yet, in practice, KN95 masks are often just bulkier versions of surgical masks. They are usually made from thicker materials and offer a tighter seal than surgical masks but do not go through the same rigorous testing that N95 masks receive.

      Unless you can guarantee you’ve purchased a quality controlled, lab-tested face mask, we don’t recommend investing in KN95 masks. It’s too hard to guarantee that your mask will block out contaminated air particles, putting you and your family at risk.

      Which Type of Face Mask Should You Buy?

      Out of the five masks discussed here, we recommend investing in N95 masks. They are the most effective mask for filtering contaminated air and creating a tight seal around your mouth and nose. Although they are slightly more expensive, it’s a small price to pay for safety and peace of mind.

      Additionally, be careful not to confuse KN95 masks for N95 masks. KN95 masks are built according to Chinese standards and are often sold before undergoing quality control tests.

      How Do N95 Respirators Work?

      Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 respirators were originally produced to protect construction and industrial workers from dust and fine particulate matter created during their work. They have since been tested and approved for use in medical settings to prevent the spread and transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

      N95 respirators approved for medical use are considered class II devices and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration under code 21 CFR 878.4040. They are designed to tightly fit the mouth and nose, sealing out:

      ➔ Diseases and infections
      ➔ Specific amounts of viral or bacterial load
      ➔ Airborne micro-particles and dust

        Most N95 masks are made from a non-woven polypropylene fiber that’s dense enough to trap microscopic particles before they pass into your lungs. They are then fitted with metal strips that bend into the shape of your face, sealing the mask to your face.

        As COVID-19 continues to spread, protect yourself and your family by getting vaccinated and investing in quality face masks. For the ultimate protection, avoid face shields, cloth masks, and disposable surgical masks. Instead, invest in N95 masks built to keep you safe properly.