With a lot of different types of face mask options out there, it’s important to understand which face mask works best for you and how to properly care for it.

Coronavirus Updates, Your Health | one month ago

Your Guide to the Different Types of Face Masks and How to Care for Them

Is my face mask reusable? Is it washable? Do I need to eventually throw it away? If so, when? With a lot of different types of face mask options out there, it’s important to understand which face mask works best for you and how to properly care for it. Learn more about the importance of face masks and the differences between the various types.

Are face masks necessary? According to health experts, the answer is a resounding YES. In many states – including North Carolina – wearing face masks in public spaces where social distancing can’t be maintained is required. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) both emphasize that wearing face masks can help to slow the spread of COVID-19, and even save lives.

To make mask wearing as effective as possible, it becomes critical for everyone to understand which face mask is most appropriate for them and how to properly care for these masks in an effort to conserve the number of masks being distributed.


N95 respirator: 

N95 respirator face maskThese types of face masks are used most commonly by healthcare workers who are in need of a higher level of protection.

“Typically, N95 masks should be used for patient care for aerosolizing procedures etc.,” says Anupama Neelakanta, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Atrium Health.

These kinds of masks are tighter-fitting and made of higher filtration material than regular masks so that they can filter out an estimated 95% of airborne particles that might otherwise pose a threat to an individual’s health. In an effort to preserve the masks for healthcare workers, the CDC does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves.

  • How do I wear it?:
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  2. Cup the respirator in your hand with the nosepiece right-side up, and the headbands hanging by the side.
  3. Position the mask under your chin and the nosepiece across the bridge of your nose.
  4. While holding this position, put the top of the headband over your head and rest it at the back of your head.
  5. Hold in place. Then, pull the bottom of the headband over your head and rest it around your upper neck, below your ears.
  6. Untwist the straps and optimally position the respirator on your nose.
  7. If your mask has a metal nosepiece, gently mold the malleable nosepiece to fit snuggly against the nose bridge and face below the eyes.
  8. Adjust edges to provide a good seal on the face. Perform a seal check with each use to ensure appropriate fit.
  • Is it reusable?: The CDC recommends that you discard N95 respirators following each use. But in a pandemic situation CDC and FDA has guidance on extended use and reuse of N95. In an effort to preserve masks for healthcare workers who are in low supply, they may follow their system’s decontamination process to ensure they are safe to reuse since method of decontamination would depend on type of mask used.

“In the hospital setting we can decontaminate some types of N95 using some techniques such as UV light, hydrogen peroxide and steam, but for general public these masks will need to bediscarded after one use,” says Dr. Neelakanta.

  • Can I wear it for extended periods of time?: Yes can be used in extended fashion when not contaminated and used appropriately.
  • Can I handwash it?: N95 masks cannot be washed.
  • In what setting do I use it?: This type of mask is critical for healthcare workers and first responders. It is not recommended you wear these in the general public.
  • Does it need to be thrown away after a certain amount of use?: There is no way of determining the maximum possible number of safe reuses for an N95 respirator as a generic number to be applied in all cases. Read more on CDC’s recommended N95 guidelines. 

KN95:

KN95 respirator face maskSimilar to a N95 respirator, a KN95 face mask is another type of respirator that is used as personal protective equipment (PPE).

“KN95 is a type of N95 where 1 size fits all and can be used similar to N95,” says. Dr. Neelakanta. “The most important thing to note is that there are sometimes fit issues with KN95 so you need to make sure it is snug and do a user seal check before use each time.”

This multilayered mask is the regulatory standard for filtering respirators that are certified in China. Due to its ability to create an airtight seal, this mask is designed to fit tightly around the face in order to provide a 95% protection against small particles.

  • How do I wear it?:
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  2. Cup the respirator in your hand with the nosepiece right side up and the ear loops hanging freely.
  3. Position the respirator under your chin and the nosepiece on the bridge of your nose.
  4. While holding the respirator in position, pull the first earband over your ear.
  5. As you continue to hold the respirator in position, pull the other earband over the second ear
  6. Optimally position the respiratoron your nose
  7. Using both hands, mold the nosepiece to fit snugly against the nose and face, below the eyes.
  8. Adjust the edges to provide a good seal on the face. 
  • Is it reusable?: No. This is a single-use mask only.
  • Can I wear it for extended periods of time?: Yes can be used in extended fashion when not contaminated and used appropriately similar to N95.
  • Can I handwash it?: No, cannot be handwashed.
  • In what setting do I use it?: This type of mask is recommended in healthcare settings.
  • Does it need to be thrown away after a certain amount of use?: Yes, needs to be thrown away after use in extended fashion per your hospital policy.


Surgical or “Procedure” Mask:

Surgical face maskAn FDA approved surgical mask is made of , disposable material. These masks are made in different thicknesses and have ability to protect healthcare workers from contact with splashes.

“Surgical masks are used typically for all patient care in healthcare settings. A surgical mask is not as tight/fitted as N95 and should be able to be tolerated easily,” says Dr. Neelakanta.

A surgical mask is the type you are used to seeing on TV surgeons, and are usually rectangle shaped. Most of the time, surgical masks will be worn by our healthcare workers who provide direct patient care..

  • How do I wear it?:
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  2. Inspect the mask for tears or holes.
  3. Identify the inside of the mask, which is usually white or lighter in color.
  4. Position the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin.
  5. Fasten the loops on each side behind your ears.
    • Tip: Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face.
    • Tip: Make sure you can breathe easily.
  • Is it reusable?: No. This is a single-use mask only but can be used in extended fashion.
  • Can I wear it for extended periods of time?: Yes, as long as it’s in good condition. Be sure to replace as soon as possible if you notice it’s dirty or damp.
  • Can I handwash it?: No. These masks are not washable.
  • In what setting do I use it?: Surgical face masks are most often used in healthcare settings. But if nothing else is available to use while in a public area where social distancing can’t be maintained, surgical masks may be used by the general public.
  • Does it need to be thrown away after a certain amount of use?: Yes, you can dispose your mask when contaminated or visibly soiled for general public or per hospital policy for healthcare workers.


1-Ply Cloth Mask:

Ply 1 cloth face maskThe “ply” for a mask is the thickness, or the number of layers, the mask consists of. A 1-ply face mask is just as it’s labeled – a face mask with one layer of protection. These can be sold online, in stores, or made at home. These masks can be secured with loops around your ears or strings that are tied behind your head.

“Cloth masks are great for general public because they’re the only masks which can be washed,” says Dr. Neelakanta. “others have to be discarded when used.”

  • How do I wear it?:
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  2. Position the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin.
  3. Depending on the style of your mask, fasten the loops on each side behind your ears or tie the strings behind your head until it fits securely.
    • Tip: Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face.
    • Tip: Make sure you can breathe easily.
  • Is it reusable?: Yes! These are reusable with regular cleaning.
  • Can I wear it for extended periods of time?: Yes, these are safe to wear all day long.
  • Can I wash it?: Yes, you can either handwash your mask or add it to your laundry. You should clean your mask after every wearing to reduce the risk of spreading germs.
  1. Handwashing: For handwashing, use hot, soapy water. Scrub the mask for at least 20 seconds, and either let airdry or dry them on high heat in the dryer.
  2. Laundry: You can also add your masks to your regular cycle of laundry using hot water. After laundering your cloth masks, tumble dry them in the dryer on high heat or let it airdry. 
  • In what setting do I use it?: These masks are good for everyday use, including visits to grocery stores, work (if you’re considered an essential worker or your office has reopened), public transportation, pharmacies, etc. Once back home, store masks in a clean place when you are not using them.
  • Does it need to be thrown away after a certain amount of use?: No but if you notice your mask is beginning to deteriorate or is loosely fitting, we recommend you get a replacement.


2-Ply Cloth Mask:

Ply 2 cloth face maskA 2-ply face mask is similar to a 1-ply face mask, with the addition of a second layer of protection. Two or more layers of cloth is preferable compared to single layer. For coughing and sneezing, a double-layer face covering has been shown to be significantly better at reducing the droptlet spread. These masks can be secured with loops around your ears or strings that are tied behind your head. This cloth mask can also be sold online, in stores, made at home, or you can visit one of Atrium Health’s distribution sites to pick up your own free 2-ply masks.

  • How do I wear it?:
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  2. Position the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin.
  3. Depending on the style of your mask, fasten the loops on each side behind your ears or tie the strings behind your head until it fits securely.

    • Tip: Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face.
    • Tip: Make sure you can breathe easily.
  • Is it reusable?: Yes! These are reusable with regular cleaning.
  • Can I wear it for extended periods of time?: Yes, these are safe to wear all day long.
  • Can I wash it?: Yes, you can either handwash your mask or add it to your laundry. You should clean your mask after every wearing to reduce the risk of spreading germs.
  1. Handwashing: For handwashing, use hot, soapy water. Scrub the mask for at least 20 seconds, and either let airdry or dry them on high heat in the dryer.
  2. Laundry: You can also add your masks to your regular cycle of laundry using hot water. After laundering your cloth masks, tumble dry them in the dryer on high heat or airdry. 
  • In what setting do I use it?: These masks are good for everyday use, including visits to grocery stores, work (if you’re considered an essential worker or your office has reopened), public transportation, pharmacies, etc. Once back home, store masks in a clean place when you are not using them.
  • Does it need to be thrown away after a certain amount of use?: No, unless you notice your mask is beginning to deteriorate or is loosely fitting, we recommend you get a replacement.


Atrium Health is committed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and has partnered with many of the state's largest employers and other local businesses to donate 2 million “2-ply” cloth face masks to the community. To receive a free mask, visit AtriumHealth.org/FreeMasks to find a pickup location near you.