People throughout the country are removing their masks after two years of on-again, off-again requirements in stores, in offices, and on planes and buses. But hand-in-hand with newly relaxed masking rules are new questions, including whether continuing to wear a mask will still help lower your risk for COVID-19, even if others around you forgo face coverings.
The answer: It’s “absolutely safer to wear a mask, regardless if those around you are not wearing one,” says Brandon Brown, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health at University of California Riverside School of Medicine. That said, the level of safety and protection depends on the type of mask you wear and how you wear it, experts say.
Aim for an N95 mask
When it comes to keeping risks low in a mixed-mask environment, your best bet is to put on a well-fitted N95 mask or similar respirator (like a KN95) because these masks are designed to protect the person wearing it, explains M. Patricia Fabian, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“That means that even if you are in a crowded room with people who aren't wearing masks and the air is contaminated with virus particles, that mask is still going to be protecting the wearer from anything that they're breathing, because essentially it's a filter that's cleaning the air before it goes into their lungs,” Fabian says.
The protection isn’t 100-percent, she emphasizes, but as the name suggests, it’s pretty close. “They're called N95 because they filter out about 95 percent of small particles. But a 95-percent reduction is a big reduction in exposure,” Fabian adds.