This Is the One Type of Mask You Should Never Wear

Face masks with valves are not the best way to protect against COVID-19, the CDC says. Here's why.

Face masks have become a normal part of our everyday lives, helping to keep us safe and to diminish the spread of COVID-19. Many states have now even issued requirements mandating that residents wear masks whenever they go outside. However, not every face mask is created equal. Cloth masks are less effective than surgical masks in filtering out the coronavirus, but still, most any protection is better than nothing—except when it comes to a face mask with a valve, however.

Mask valves are usually found on respirator-based face masks, like the N95 respirator. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 respirators filter out "at least 95 percent of particles in the air, including large and small particles," where other face masks only provide minimal protection against large droplets. And while many N95 masks are made without mask valves and are suitable for wear, the experts at the CDC say that face masks that include valves shouldn't be used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"An N95 respirator with an exhalation valve does provide the same level of protection to the wearer as one that does not have a valve," the CDC notes. "Respirators with exhalation valves should not be used in situations where a sterile field must be maintained because the exhalation valve allows unfiltered exhaled air to escape into the sterile field."

That means that while you may be protecting yourself from contracting the coronavirus, if you are already sick and unaware, you could be spreading it to other people if your mask has a valve. According to the 3M Company, this one-way valve filters in the air you breathe, but can allow contaminated droplets from exhaled air to escape through the valve when you breathe out. And with the CDC estimating that nearly 25 percent of people could be asymptomatic (meaning they have the coronavirus and can transmit it, but aren't showing symptoms), widespread use of masks with valves won't help to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Doctor wearing highly protective suit and holding a face mask.

So why do any masks have these valves if they're not protecting against germs? Well, face masks with valves were originally designed in the 1970s to use in factories and coal mines, according to EHS Today, an occupational safety and health magazine. Workers needed to wear masks to avoid inhaling harmful matter. However, as many people wearing masks now amid the COVID-19 pandemic can attest, these masks are not exactly comfortable. We can all agree that wearing a mask for your entire shift, especially in coal mines, would be extremely uncomfortable as masks trap heat from your mouth. So the valves were created to allow heat to escape from the mask, so the workers remained cooler and more comfortable in the mines and in factories. Of course, for that purpose, the air they breathed out wasn't a concern.

Today, many hardware stores like Home Depot sell N95 masks with valves to use for home improvement projects, as they help protect users from sanding, grinding, sawing, and insulating particles, while still reducing heat buildup inside the mask.

So while many people might assume that these masks are a suitable way to remain comfortable in public while still fighting against COVID-19, that's not the case. In fact, California's Bay Area has banned face masks with valves in them, saying they don't comply with the mandate for face coverings. And for more mistakes you may be making, check out Gloves Won't Protect You From Coronavirus If You Make These Mistakes.

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