Medical experts have new advice for those hoping to avoid COVID-19 infection: Two masks are better than one.
Wearing a pair of face coverings lowers your risk of infection by making it more difficult for the coronavirus to penetrate into your mouth and nose.
However, if you are not careful, wearing two masks can undermine the very safety you seek, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
“I always say that it is better to wear one mask correctly than two masks incorrectly,” he says.
How the coronavirus spreads
The coronavirus is spread in three ways, Benjamin says:
- Large-particle droplet spread that comes directly from an infected person’s nose and mouth.
- Small particle aerosolization spread, in which tiny particles remain suspended in the air and infect people who encounter the particle, either in the air or after it has fallen to a surface.
- Fomite transmission, where you pick up the virus from a surface – such as a door knob or table top – after someone with the virus has touched the same surface with contaminated hands.
Wearing a face covering primarily protects you against the first two types of transmission, which are the most common ways the virus spreads. Even a single mask can provide good protection, so long as it offers a tight seal around your mouth and nose.
“What a mask does quite frankly is physically blocks the droplet and the aerosolization virus from easily coming into your nose and mouth,” Benjamin says.
So, the tighter the mask, the less likely you are to inhale virus particles, he says.
Why double masking can help
Wearing two layers of masking provides even greater protection.
“What they are trying to achieve with the double masks is to increase the number of layers so that when you inhale, you don’t inhale the virus around your mask or through your mask,” Benjamin says.
Extra protection may be more important now that new, potentially more infectious strains of COVID are emerging. Such strains may be able to link more effectively to respiratory tissues – either because the virus replicates more and there is more of it around, or it has become stickier, Benjamin says.
“The virus hasn’t grown wings, it hasn’t grown legs,” he says. “It’s not able to navigate around your mask. But you can inhale it around the mask if it’s not tight.”
How to wear two masks correctly
If you plan to wear two masks, make sure to avoid common mistakes, such as leaving gaps around the sides. Instead, follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tie a small knot around the sides of the mask.
“That will bring it tighter to your face on the sides,” Benjamin says. “And then you tuck those sides in so you get a tighter fit.”
This is particularly important if you wear a cloth mask on top of a paper surgical mask – as many people do when wearing two masks – because the paper mask tends to fit more loosely.
“The goal is to not have either mask create a looser fit around your face,” Benjamin says.
Should you wear two masks?
Wearing two masks can add an extra layer of protection between you and the coronavirus. But is it necessary for everyone?
“For the average person, a single mask worn properly is probably sufficient,” Benjamin says.
Many people find it difficult to breathe through a single mask, Benjamin notes. Wearing two masks may magnify such discomfort, leading people to poke their nose out above the mask or to lift the mask above their mouth, both of which can be counterproductive.
In addition, discomfort may cause people to fiddle with their masks in other ways, which increases the risk of touching the mask repeatedly with potentially contaminated hands.
“If anyone sat there and watched themselves or videotaped themselves, you’ll see that the number of times we touch our face without thinking about it is a lot,” Benjamin says.
However, there are situations when you might want to don an extra mask, such as if you are caring for someone in your home who is infected with the virus.
If you plan to wear two masks, make sure to do so correctly. That means both masks should cover both your nose and mouth and fit tightly to your face.
Also, it’s important to clean your masks regularly. Benjamin suggests throwing away disposable masks after a single use, and washing cloth masks daily.
“Throw it in the laundry when you wash your clothing,” he says. “So, you’ll need to have several masks.”