So, Do I Need to Start Wearing Two Masks Now?
Embellished, designer face masks have been happening for almost a year now, but during the inauguration (of a President who actually promotes science and mask-wearing!) they had their moment. If you looked a bit closer though — let's say at Amanda Gorman's red Prada rhinestone covered mask — you may have noticed a second mask visible underneath. It's something President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden do frequently (I first noticed a white mask peeking out from under Dr. Biden's custom floral Dolce & Gabbana mask back in October on the campaign trail.)
Now, many of us are left contemplating... are we doing masks wrong? Should we all be doubling up?
New research from the CDC says that would be a yes. Especially with a new variant of the coronavirus out there — which appears to be even more efficient and therefore contagious — experts say double-masking is a smart extra precaution. In January, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said on NBC's the Today show, “If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective.” And now the Centers for Disease Control have backed him up with data.
For as long as they've endorsed mask-wearing, the CDC has recommended "two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric." They also caution against single-layer bandanas and thin, stretchy neck gaiters, which research shows offer very little protection from coronavirus. (If you must wear your running gaiter, fold it to make it two layers, they suggest.) Now, the CDC has numbers to back up their hunch: Their research, reported Wednesday by CNN, has found that double-masking can block up to 92.5% of potentially infectious particles. The study also found that when an infected person and uninfected person both wore double masks, the healthy person's exposure risk was reduced by a whopping 96.4%. So, yeah — double-masks for everyone!
This echoes findings from a paper published on January 15, in which the study author, an expert in virus transmission, suggested wearing a surgical mask underneath cloth masks for "an additional layer of filtration while improving the fit."
There are two options to achieve this added protection in your own mask wardrobe, according to the infectious disease experts. You can keep wearing the celebrity-loved masks you've accumulated over the past year (as long as they are "at least two layers with a high thread count") with a surgical mask layered underneath (for instance, these nondescript black ones from Amazon). Another option if your mask has a filter slot you haven't been using? Go ahead and sandwich one in (this filter can be surgical mask material or a piece of a vacuum bag).
Still not sure why you need the extra layer? In their commentary, the study authors use this helpful analogy to explain why we're even wearing masks in the first place — and why doubling up is smart practice. "Masks work by blocking or filtering out viruses that are carried in aerosols...air must curve as it flows around individual, tightly packed fibers of the material, like a race car swerving around cones of an obstacle course," they write. "As the air curves, the aerosols it carries cannot make the sharp bends and therefore slam into the fibers, or they come too close to the fibers and stick to them. Very small aerosols acquire random motion from air molecules bouncing off them and end up crashing into the fibers." Something to think about the next time you put on your face mask!
While it can be confusing to keep up with the latest mask studies and recommendations, here's the bottom line for now: You can keep rocking either your basic blue, Bernie Sanders-style disposable surgical mask or your favorite stylish, two-layer fabric mask — both of which the researchers say are the minimum for "basic protection." But especially in riskier situations — for instance, when you're on a plane and can't social distance or in a crowded grocery store — it's best to do as First Lady Jill Biden would and opt for that third layer.