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That stack of cloth masks sitting by your front door or shoved into your car’s center console? It’s time to thank them for their service and part ways, once and for all. Experts say you should stop wearing them.
Cloth masks are no longer able to effectively serve us at this stage in the pandemic, at least as compared to their medical-grade counterparts: surgical masks, N95s, KN95s or KF94s. The masks used by doctors and medical professionals offer significantly greater protection against the Covid virus and its newest, even-more-contagious variants, Omicron and Delta.
On their own, cloth masks are just not very effective, laments pediatrician Neela Sethi Young, MD, who sees patients in California and is the co-founder of Jaanuu. Given how fast Omicron spreads, it’s crucial to have a mask that blocks viral particles, as Omicron’s strength lies in how little of the virus is needed to cause infection.
Learn more about why you should make the switch to a KN95 or surgical mask, and shop our favorite masks for kids below.
Why you should stop wearing cloth masks
Cloth masks were originally intended as a stopgap when supplies of medical-grade masks were low early on in the pandemic. With limited resources, an effort was made to get medical-grade masks in the hands of front-line medical workers. But now, we have sufficient masks available for both healthcare workers and the general population—and it’s time for everyone to level up.
Children and adults should make the switch now if they haven’t already, especially if kids are attending in-person classes. Medical-grade masks are also helpful if you’re shopping in person or visiting public places like libraries or using public transit, especially with rates of community transmission as high as they are currently.
What type of masks should you wear now?
Dr. Young suggests wearing 3-ply surgical masks, KN95s or KF94s. (All of these options come in both adult and child sizes, and we’ve listed a slew of kid-friendly versions for you below.) These types of masks are made from material that can block viral particles from entering your respiratory tract, thanks to their electrostatic charge, which “actually pulls these particles in as they’re floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles,” says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, to NPR.
But really, which type of mask is best?
It depends on which factors you prioritize. Surgical masks are more lightweight and tend to be a bit more breathable, though they are less effective in that they can allow more viral particles to get through. KN95s and KF94s are heavier-duty and offer more viral protection, but can be somewhat uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
This helpful chart illustrates how each type of mask holds up against Covid transmission, and outlines the time it takes to transmit infectious particles depending on the type of mask each person is wearing.
Even a non-fitted N95 (with some gaping) can protect the wearer for 12.5 hours. A fit-tested N95, on the other hand, offers 25 hours of protection—meaning it would take 25 hours for an infectious dose of Covid to get through the mask. (A clear win for N95s.)
Cost and durability
Buying new disposable masks comes with a couple of drawbacks: namely, they’re expensive, and they’re not great for the environment (though TerraCycle offers a bulk recycling program), as they wear out much faster than reusable cloth ones. They can’t be laundered, and you will probably need to restock every couple of months or so, depending on how frequently you wear them. Adults can usually get more than one wear out of disposable masks, but kids… may not.
But this is a case in which paying a bit more upfront for prevention can protect you from having to shell out on costly treatments down the line—or potentially missing work in the future to care for a sick kiddo.
Have a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA)? Under IRS guidance released in the spring of 2021, you can use your HSA or FSA accounts to pay for face masks, plus hand sanitizer and sanitizing spray and wipes, all in the name of Covid prevention.
What to do if your kid won’t wear a disposable mask
If your kiddo has become attached to their favorite tie-dyed cloth masks and is loath to part with them (what times we live in!), Dr. Young says it’s time for some “mask training.”
Try having your child wear the mask for a short period of time every day until they get more used to it, says Dr. Young. “It’s mind over matter. You can start with five or 10 minutes, then move to 15 and 20 and reward them each time they put it on. That generally works.” Worst case? You let them keep their cloth mask and layer a 3-ply surgical mask on top. Everybody wins!
Here are a few of the best (and still in stock!) medical-grade face masks for kids.