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Opinion | It’s Been 10 Months, and I Still Don’t Know When to Replace My Mask!

Zeynep: If I were wearing an N95 just for the weekly grocery store run, I’d probably be fine with alternating two carefully handled masks for many months as long as the elastic works and there’s no soiling. That’s not a lot of use! But if I were wearing one all day, every workday, I’d consider having one for each day and replacing them maybe every month. So that’s about five per month. Could one be really careful and make that two months? Probably.

Also it’s important to emphasize that all this doesn’t mean cloth masks are worthless. Cloth masks do really help with stopping transmission onward, from the wearer to the other people. It would be good to be able to purchase certified cloth masks with the three layers the WHO recommends, with features like nose wires and ties that make them fit better. One can also wear surgical masks — those light, papery ones commonlyused in hospitals — with a brace to help hold them in place. Preliminary studies show those do a great job, too. It’s just that medical respirators like the N95s, KN95 (the Chinese standard), disposable K94 (the South Korean standard) and FFP2 (the European standard) do a much better job of protecting the wearer in addition to helping prevent onward transmission — because that’s what they are designed to do! Protecting the wearer is more important if, for example, someone works with other people who don’t mask up well, or if one is high-risk and can’t isolate. This is especially important with the new, more transmissible variants. But you don’t need an N95 for that outdoor walk.

But that brings me to the other problem: How are people supposed to find the right mask? I have purchased KN95s at local reputable stores and checked that they were included in the list of ones approved by the F.D.A. However, I would be careful about buying online, unfortunately. Too many fakes. I have seen reputable retailers like Costco beginning to sell N95s online again, and I would trust that. People can also purchase braces for surgical masks or make a brace themselves from a template, which really improves fit. Fit is very important for upping one’s mask game. We can start by noting that facial hair makes the fit worse, so shaving that beard for the pandemic is an option. (Sorry!) People can check the fit by adjusting the nose bridge to be tight and holding the mask and inhaling sharply, and seeing if they feel cool air coming in from the sides of the mask. The better the fit, the less the air from the sides. Preferably, there’s none. Also, my best-fitting mask does not fog my glasses at all because no air is escaping upward. When I get a new type of mask, I inhale and exhale while focusing to see if I feel if the air is escaping, or if there’s any gaping on the sides or around the nose area (my glasses fog to let me know of that).

Charlie: Hearing this advice and listening to you explain all the nuance, I can think only one thing: We desperately need the Biden administration and our government public health institutions to issue more plainspoken best-practice guidance. There’s still way too much confusion!

Zeynep: I hope the government will soon step up and provide a way for the public to buy certified products.

But for the future, I fervently look forward to the day when anyone can just click on the C.D.C. website for timely, well-researched guidance that’s communicated clearly, updated as necessary. I recently saw that the White House would be providing multiple health briefings each week. I hope that the kind of conversations we’re having here will be totally irrelevant.

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