Experts Share How Long Can You Wear a Face Mask Without Replacing It, What Type of Mask to Wear, and More
For many, masks have become part of everyday life, but which mask to choose and how to care for it can be overwhelming — especially when it comes to travel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people pick the mask "with the best fit, protection, and comfort for you." These factors can often be a balancing act, but experts who spoke to Travel + Leisure agreed: ultimately, any mask is better than no mask at all.
Specifically, the CDC recommends people wear a mask indoors in areas of "high" COVID-19 community transmission. The agency also recommends people wear a mask as part of a "Layered prevention" strategy, which also includes staying up to date on vaccines and receiving a booster shot when eligible.
The CDC recently changed its face mask recommendations, considering hospitalization rates and hospital capacity in its mask guidance, rather than case numbers.
The agency said people don't generally need to wear a mask outdoors, but may choose to do so in more crowded situations.
Recently, several cruise lines, theme parks, and even states like California and Nevada have made masks optional, but face coverings are still required on federal transportation, like planes, and will be through at least March 18.
Different airlines also have different policies when it comes to the type of mask that is accepted. Some, like Air France and Lufthansa, require passengers to wear medical masks, while others, like United Airlines, don't allow bandanas.
"You want to choose the mask that gives you the most protection but that is comfortable," Dr. Deborah Theodore, an infectious diseases specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian, told T+L, adding, "It's still important to remember that even if there's not a mandate, people have different reasons for making choices about whether or not to wear a mask. And still wearing a mask inside is probably still the right choice for many people."
This is everything travelers need to know about masks from what kind to pick to how to take care of it:
What's the difference between an N95, KN95, KF94, surgical mask, and cloth mask?
The main difference between these different masks is the level of protection they offer. N95 masks, for example, filter out at least 95% of particles in the air when they have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and when they fit properly, according to the CDC. Similarly, legitimate KN95's do the same, but are produced internationally.
Good quality KF94 masks block 94% of particles and are often constructed in three parts, fitting below the chin and above the nose, Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor in the Department of Pathology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told T+L.
A well-fitting surgical mask blocks between 42% and 51% of particles, Tierno said, "which is considered pretty good." But certain factors, like a beard, may affect the fit.
And a cloth mask blocks between 3% and 43% of particles, depending on the quality of the material and the number of layers, he said.
So which mask should you choose?
That can depend on your comfort, personal risk level, and the type of activity you are doing.
"Where are you going? How much COVID is circulating in the place you're traveling to? What is the hospitalization rate and what is the vaccination rate? What is the risk in the place you're going to?" Theodore said. "I would use [your best mask] in places where you know there are going to be a lot of people with unknown vaccination status."
An outdoor walk versus a crowded setting may call for different masks, Theodore reiterated, noting that she wouldn't wear a cloth mask in an airport or on an airplane.
How long can you wear a mask before replacing it?
The answer is pretty long, especially if you wear it intermittently, but you should think about rotating your masks. Tierno said masks can be worn over and over again, but he doesn't wear the same one every day.
"Since this coronavirus actually dies when exposed to air over time… the idea is to use different masks on a different day. I use a 3-day cycle," he said. "Don't forget, you're dealing with minuscule particles and now these particles are dead."
It's also important not to touch your face too much when you're wearing the mask so you don't contaminate your hands with the particles on the surface. And if the mask is obviously dirty or ripped in any way, it's time for a new one.
"If you put it on and it feels dirty on the inside… it's time to throw away the mask. Similarly, if any part of the mask is damaged, that mask isn't functional anymore," Theodore added. "Otherwise, you can really use the mask as long as you want as long as it's still comfortable."
Can you wash your mask?
Unless it's a cloth mask, the answer is no. In fact, water can damage N95, KN95, KF94, and surgical masks.
That's because these masks are constructed using electrostatic charges, which help trap the particles you don't want to breathe in, Theodore said.
"It's a capture and kill mechanism," she said. "In the same way water damages things that require electricity, it's a similar concept that you wouldn't want to damage these electrostatic charges."
Cloth masks can be washed with regular laundry detergent in a laundry machine or by hand, according to the CDC. They should be completely dry before wearing them again.
How can you verify a mask is legitimate?
Most N95 masks are produced in the United States and must be certified by NIOSH.
KN95 masks, however, get a bit trickier. The CDC said customers can look for masks that are stamped with the Chinese respiratory protection standard, "GB 2626-2019" or "GB2626-2006 KN95" if it was produced before July 1, 2021.
Theodore said buyers can also purchase masks in a big box store, which often does its own vetting. For those who buy online, she said people should try to purchase directly from the manufacturer or the company's official store on Amazon, rather than a third party.
What about double masking?
Theodore said wearing two masks can be a great way to get more protection "as long as it's improving and not impeding the fit of the mask."
Wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask, for example, will make it fit even tighter. But she wouldn't recommend wearing, say, a KF94 mask over a KN95 mask.
"That's just not going to work," she said.
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.