KEY POINTS

  • Surgical masks can filter virus particles 42% to 88% better than cloth masks
  • N95 masks can filter 95% of airborne particles
  • People without N95 masks can also wear surgical masks made of polypropylene

As the Omicron coronavirus variant spreads rapidly across the United States, many health experts are urging people to consider wearing surgical masks instead of the cloth variety to protect themselves from the infection. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Dec. 6 recommended the wearing of masks to limit the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. However, the public health agency did not specify what type of mask people should wear in their report. 

Health experts are now recommending against wearing cloth masks and switching to disposable masks, such as surgical masks and N95 masks. 

"We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask," CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wan, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said on CNN Newsroom on Tuesday. 

"You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone,” she added.

An August study published on Innovations for Poverty Action also found that surgical masks were 95% better at filtering out virus particles compared to cloth masks, which only filtered 37% of infectious particles. The study included researchers from Yale University, Stanford University and Bangladesh. 

A separate study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado found surgical masks to be between 42% and 88% more efficient in filtering virus particles. In comparison, the filtration efficiency range of cloth masks was also found to be between 16% and 23%.

The latter study also suggested that N95 masks, which the Food and Drug Administration classifies as respirators, filtered at least 95% of airborne particles. 

Dr. Ashwin Balagopal, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Medicine, encouraged people who cannot get their hands on N95 masks to wear KN95 masks instead. The only difference between the two masks is where they are certified. N95 masks are certified in the U.S., while KN95 are certified in China, according to KTVB.

People who cannot find KN95 masks can wear surgical masks made of polypropylene — a non-woven plastic material that can attract, intercept and remove foreign particles. 

homemade masks need multiple cloth layers homemade masks need multiple cloth layers Photo: Denny Hell - Pixabay