N95 masks on blue background

Credit: iStock/Liliboas

With the spread of COVID-19’s omicron variant, people’s attention has returned to which facemask may provide most protection against the virus. Indeed, one Southern California university will require faculty, students, staff, and visitors to wear surgical or N95 masks on campus for the spring semester rather than cloth or other facial coverings. But is a surgical mask better than a cloth mask? Should we all be considering an N95 mask?

Experts at the University of California, Riverside, share their thoughts on these questions:


Richard Carpiano, professor, School of Public Policy

Q: What makes an N95 mask a particularly effective facemask? Could you provide a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of an N95 mask versus a typical cloth mask and versus a typical “surgical” mask of the non-N95 variety?

Richard Carpiano
Richard Carpiano
Credit: UC Riverside

A: Compared to a surgical mask or even the common cloth masks that many people have been wearing during the pandemic, an N95 mask is designed to be much more effective in providing protection from the coronavirus. It provides a closer fit to one's face via a tighter seal around one’s nose and mouth. That seal, in combination with the material it is composed of, offers a much higher level of protection from airborne particles. In fact, when used properly, an N95 can filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles of a particular size that includes the coronavirus. Commonly available KN95 masks have many similarities to N95 masks. Though KN95s are not held to the same federal manufacturing standards as N95s, they are still a very useful alternative.

Q: What should a person know about wearing an N95 mask? For example, does it need to be discarded after each use?

A:For an N95 (or even the KN95) to be effective, it is important that wearers make sure that the seal around the face and mouth is adequately snug and that there are no gaps — especially around the bridge of the nose. It should fit comfortably but sufficiently secure either behind the head (an N95 will only have head straps) or behind the ears (in some KN95s). As for repeated use, this is a source of debate. N95s are supposed to be single use only and used for a limited period before being discarded. However, because of their price, such limited use can add up in cost. The inventor of the material used for N95s published some recommendations to enable multiple uses of an N95 mask. One of them is that a user should rotate a set of N95s so that each mask has three days to be adequately decontaminated from the virus. The mask needs to be stored at room temperature in its own paper bag. However, one must discard their mask once it becomes soiled, the noseband loses its ability to retain a shape, the straps become loose or break, or the mask becomes difficult to breathe through. Also, beware of KN95 masks, which are made to foreign standards, and have been found to vary widely in quality or even in some cases, be counterfeit. Buying from trusted sources that vet the manufacturer (like the Project N95 initiative) or referring to the CDC and FDA’s websites for authorized mask manufacturers before you purchase a specific product is important.


Brandon Brown, associate professor and epidemiologist, School of Medicine

Q: Should we all be opting for these masks? If that’s not possible, what are the next best options?

Brandon Brown
Brandon Brown
Credit: UC Riverside

A: In an ideal world, we would all currently be using fit-tested N95 masks in public settings when interacting with those outside of our households. If N95s are not available, the next best mask is a surgical one, followed by a cloth one. Any mask is better than no mask, but all masks are not created equal.

Q: If I have been vaccinated and received a booster shot, would, say, a cloth mask work just fine for me?

A: Vaccines and boosters are one tool for protecting us in our toolkit, masks are another. Cloth masks do provide some protection, but N95s and surgical masks are superior. No vaccine provides 100 percent protection, so donning a high-quality face mask is ideal especially in our current reality of the COVID-19 surge and emerging variants.