How well do face masks protect against coronavirus?

Get answers to your questions about face masks, including how to use them properly.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Can face masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19? Yes. Face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and physical distancing, can help slow the spread of the virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends fabric masks for the general public. The CDC says that N95 masks should be reserved for health care providers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends medical masks for health care workers as well as for anyone who has or may have COVID-19 or who is caring for someone who has or may have COVID-19.

The WHO also recommends medical masks for individuals who are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, such as people in their 60s and older, and people of any age with significant health problems.

Get the latest health advice from Mayo Clinic delivered to your inbox.

Sign up for free and receive the latest on research advancements, health tips and current health topics like COVID-19, plus expert advice on managing your health.

Sign up

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information, and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

How do the different types of masks work?

Medical masks

Also called surgical masks, these are loosefitting disposable masks. They're meant to protect the wearer from contact with droplets and sprays that may contain germs. A medical mask also filters out large particles in the air when the wearer breathes in.

To make medical masks more form-fitting, knot the ear loops where they attach to the mask. Then fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges.

N95 masks

An N95 mask is a type of respirator. It offers more protection than a medical mask does because it filters out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales.

Because N95 masks have been in short supply, the CDC has said they should be reserved for health care providers. Health care providers must be trained and pass a fit test before using an N95 mask. Like surgical masks, N95 masks are intended to be disposable. However, researchers are testing ways to disinfect and reuse them.

Some N95 masks, and even some cloth masks, have valves that make them easier to breathe through. Unfortunately, these masks don't filter the air the wearer breathes out. For this reason, they've been banned in some places.

Cloth masks

A cloth mask is intended to trap respiratory droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes. It also acts as a barrier to protect the wearer from inhaling droplets released by others.

The most effective cloths masks are made of multiple layers of tightly woven fabric like cotton. A mask with layers will stop more droplets from getting through your mask or escaping from it.

How to get the most from your mask

The effectiveness of cloth and medical masks can be improved by ensuring that the masks are well fitted to the contours of your face to prevent leakage of air around the masks' edges.

Masks should be snug over the nose, mouth and chin, with no gaps. You should feel warm air coming through the front of the mask when you breathe out. You shouldn't feel air coming out under the edges of the mask.

Masks that have a bendable nose strip help prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask.

Some people choose to wear a disposable mask under their cloth mask. In that case, the cloth mask should press the edges of the disposable mask against the face. Don't add layers if they make it hard to breathe or obstruct your vision.

Proper use, storage and cleaning of masks also affects how well they protect you. Follow these steps for putting on and taking off your mask:

  • Wash or sanitize your hands before and after putting on your mask.
  • Place your mask over your mouth and nose and chin.
  • Tie it behind your head or use ear loops. Make sure it's snug.
  • Don't touch your mask while wearing it.
  • If you accidentally touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands.
  • If your mask becomes wet or dirty, switch to a clean one. Put the used mask in a sealable bag until you can get rid of it or wash it.
  • Remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face.
  • Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask.
  • Regularly wash cloth masks in the washing machine or by hand. (They can be washed along with other laundry.)

And don't forget these precautions:

  • Don't put masks on anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious or otherwise unable to remove the mask without help.
  • Don't put masks on children under 2 years of age.
  • Don't use face masks as a substitute for physical distancing.

What about face shields?

The CDC doesn't recommend using face shields instead of masks because it's unclear how much protection shields provide. However, wearing a face mask may not be possible in every situation. If you must use a face shield instead of a mask, choose one that wraps around the sides of your face and extends below your chin.

Do you still need to wear a facemask after you’re fully vaccinated?

After you're fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends that it's ok not to wear a mask in several situations when you're outside. For example, you can attend small outdoor gatherings with family and friends, and dine outdoors at restaurants without wearing a mask. You're considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after you get a second dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or 2 weeks after you get a single dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

However, even if you're fully vaccinated, continue to wear a face mask in indoor public spaces and outdoors where there is a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as at a crowded event. In the U.S., you'll also need to wear a mask while on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

May 06, 2021 See more In-depth

See also

  1. After COVID-19 vaccination: Is it OK to visit with friends and loved ones?
  2. Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread through food, water, surfaces and pets?
  3. COVID-19 and vitamin D
  4. Safe cancer treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic
  5. Cancer treatment during COVID-19: How to move ahead safely
  6. Convalescent plasma therapy
  7. Coronavirus safety tips for going out
  8. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  9. COVID-19: How can I protect myself?
  10. Coronavirus grief
  11. Coronavirus vs. flu: Similarities and differences
  12. Cough
  13. Herd immunity and coronavirus
  14. COVID-19 and high blood pressure
  15. COVID-19 and pets
  16. COVID-19 and the risk of suicide
  17. COVID-19 and your mental health
  18. COVID-19 antibody testing
  19. COVID-19, cold, allergies and the flu
  20. COVID-19 and holidays
  21. COVID-19 (coronavirus) drugs: Are there any that work?
  22. COVID-19 (coronavirus) in babies and children
  23. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  24. COVID-19 (coronavirus) stigma: What it is and how to reduce it
  25. COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice
  26. COVID-19 tests
  27. Coping with unemployment caused by COVID-19
  28. COVID-19 (coronavirus): Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing
  29. COVID-19: Social distancing, contact tracing are critical
  30. COVID-19 vaccine: Should I reschedule my mammogram?
  31. COVID-19 vaccines
  32. COVID-19 variant
  33. COVID-19: Who's at higher risk of serious symptoms?
  34. Debunking coronavirus myths
  35. Diarrhea
  36. Different COVID-19 vaccines
  37. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  38. Surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic
  39. Fever
  40. Fever: First aid
  41. Fever treatment: Quick guide to treating a fever
  42. Getting safe emergency care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  43. Kids, loneliness and COVID-19
  44. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  45. How do COVID-19 antibody tests differ from diagnostic tests?
  46. How does COVID-19 affect people with diabetes?
  47. How to take your pulse
  48. How to measure your respiratory rate
  49. How to safely go to your doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic
  50. How to take your temperature
  51. How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
  52. Loss of smell
  53. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  54. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  55. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)
  56. Nausea and vomiting
  57. Neurosurgery during the COVID-19 pandemic
  58. Parenting and special needs during a pandemic
  59. Pregnancy and COVID-19
  60. Coronavirus infection by race
  61. Red eye
  62. Routine cancer screening during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
  63. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  64. Safety tips for returning to school during COVID-19
  65. Sex and COVID-19
  66. Shortness of breath
  67. Skin care tips during a pandemic
  68. Stay healthy during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic
  69. Stay on track with medications during a pandemic
  70. Telemedicine online doctor visits
  71. Teleworking during the coronavirus
  72. Thermometers: Understand the options
  73. Video: Travel safely for medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  74. Treating COVID-19 at home
  75. Unusual symptoms of coronavirus
  76. Watery eyes
  77. Fight coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission at home
  78. Contact tracing and COVID-19: What is it and how does it work?
  79. What's causing my infant's diarrhea?