Every Face Mask You Can Buy—Ranked by Effectiveness

Face masks can help keep you safe, according to the CDC. Here are the best—and the worst—options.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, wearing face masks has become a fact of life that many of us are still getting used to. And even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a face covering whenever you're out in public, there are a few important differences between the many options that are out there. Yes, it turns out, not all face masks are created equally. With the help of The New York Times, we did some research on face masks and their varying levels of effectiveness so that you can make the right decision when it comes to protecting yourself. Read on to find out which face mask is the most effective and which is the least effective before you make your next purchase. And for more info on the types of PPE you should steer clear of, check out The One Type of Mask You Should Never Wear.

Surgical masks

a young woman in a yellow sweater wearing a surgical mask

Physicians across the world don FDA-approved surgical masks every day when they scrub in for operations. But a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has shown that while these pieces of PPE—also known as medical masks—are good for protecting against large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily fluid, they're not as effective at protecting people from airborne particles as other face mask options out there.

Another reason you should stay away from surgical face masks? The CDC says they're not for the public's use during the pandemic. "Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders," the CDC website reads.

Cloth masks

A sewing room with custom face masks being created

It may come as a surprise, but a double-layered cloth mask can be an effective way to protect yourself and those around you from spreading contagions, as the aforementioned study found. Ensure that any homemade cloth masks fit properly—meaning they easily cover from above your nose down to under your chin, without any big gaps on your cheeks. And if you want to DIY your own mask, check out The 7 Best Materials for Making Your Own Face Mask, Backed by Science.


N95 PPE protective mask resting on blue medical scrubs with copy space

The N95 mask has become a household name ever since their drastic shortage created a mad dash for them during the early weeks of the pandemic. These single-use masks filter out 95 percent of airborne particles, creating a seal that protects the wearer from outside contaminants. That said, it's another piece of PPE the CDC doesn't want you to wear, not only because they should be reserved for medical professionals, but because chances are high you'd be wearing yours wrong.

Elastomeric masks

asian man in a blue collared shirt wearing an elastomeric mask

With the shortage of N95 masks creating a dire situation in hospitals across the globe, many healthcare workers are forced to wear them for much longer than their intended single-use. Instead, some people on the frontlines are turning to elastomeric masks, which are government-certified to protect the wearer and those around them as well or better than N95s, according to The Times. Plus, they can also be cleaned and reused for years. Darth Vader or Breaking Bad jokes aside, these pieces of PPE may be one of the safest solutions for those on the frontlines.

Powered air-purifying respirators

A man listening to colleagues while wearing a powered air purifying respirator

By now, many of us are used to face masks making us feel stuffy and warm. But what about an option that's incredibly safe and literally breathes? A powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) uses a battery-powered blower to force air through filter cartridges or canisters and into the breathing zone of the wearer. This creates an airflow inside either a tight-fitting face piece or loose-fitting hood or helmet, providing much more protection than surgical masks or N95s. But while this option may afford you the ability to breathe easy, it's going to cost you: Many models sell for around $800 and require pricey regular maintenance, The Times reports. And for more helpful face mask information, check out 7 States Where You're Breaking the Law if You Don't Wear a Face Mask.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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