Should We Start Wearing Multiple Face Masks at a Time?

Double-masking could prove essential in the trying months ahead

double masking
Vera Davidova/Unsplash

During the first couple months of the pandemic, we learned to prioritize our short supply of N95 respirators for those who needed them the most. The CDC and FDA both endorsed cloth face coverings, and emphasized that we didn’t need the filtration superpowers of the N95 in order to stay safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Ten months later, this remains the case, especially with hospitalizations rising across the country.

Still, it’s understandable if some Americans might wish they had a more robust mask at the moment, if only to pull off trips to the grocery store. The extremely infectious U.K. variant has firmly arrived in the United States, and epidemiologists are already warning that even typical COVID safety measures (like staying six feet apart), may not be enough to protect oneself from the virus. To that end, it may be worth creating a DIY version of the N95 mask using multiple masks, also known as “double masking,” the next time you leave the house.

Biden wearing two masks
President-elect Joe Biden double-masking while on the campaign trail last October.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Dr. Linsey Marr — an expert in virus transmission at Virginia Tech — explained that “if you combine multiple layers, you start achieving pretty high efficiencies” at blocking the virus. She recommends wearing a cloth mask over one of those disposable surgical masks. It’s the closest approximation of a N95 respirator you can wear on your face, without outright purchasing one that could’ve been used in a hospital to save lives.

Dr. Marr and her colleagues published research late last year, which explains exactly how the fibers of a mask can block the progress of air droplets. In layman’s terms: adding an extra layer gives the virus a hell of a time exiting or entering an airway. Just, bear in mind, loading up with three or more masks will defeat the purpose. At that point, you’ll struggle with breathing, and be more likely to pull the masks off and gasp for air. The best way forward, especially during sensitive situations (while on public transportation, for instance) is to mask up — twice.

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