Not only can wearing a mask help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but research also suggests that it might reduce the severity of the illness for those who do get infected. “This is very likely due to less virus particles being transferred or transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected person due to a mask barrier (being worn),” says Dr. Daniel Berliner, primary care doctor with virtual health platform PlushCare and a former Medical Corps Master Flight Surgeon in the U.S. Army.
Given that masks provide a layer of protection from the coronavirus, it’s no surprise that some devoted mask-wearers have been doubling up on masks to play it extra safe in public. “The outer surface of a mask can catch the infectious droplet, but with continued inhalation, it may work its way through the material,” explains Dr. Daniel Burnett, MD and CEO of JustAir, a powered air-purifying mask system. “A second layer provides an extra barrier to droplet transmission.” Curious whether or not wearing two masks at once can really make a difference? We asked a handful of doctors and nurses to break down the pros and cons of double-masking and this is what they had to say.
What are the benefits of double-masking?
While the CDC recommends wearing a single, multilayered mask, Alicia Swans, a nurse at PlushCare, says that there are benefits to wearing two masks for those that wear thin or flimsy face coverings. “Combining multiple layers helps to achieve a fairly high efficiency of blocking viruses from exiting and entering the airway,” she explains. Additionally, Dr. Burnett says that double masks are more likely to conform to the face and protect the inner mask from contamination. “It is common practice for frontline healthcare workers to wear a second, cheaper surgical mask over the expensive N95 so the N95 can be used throughout the day,” he explains.
And in light of the new strain of COVID-19, which is said to be more transmissible, wearing two masks is almost certainly better than one. What’s more, White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci recommends doubling up when heading out. During an interview with NBC’s TODAY earlier this week, Dr. Fauci explained that double masking “likely does” help protect against these new strains, adding “It just makes common sense that it would be more effective.”
What are the downsides to double-masking?
While wearing two masks can supply an extra layer of protection against the coronavirus, it could also create some problems. “If wearing two masks provides a worse fit than one well-fitted mask, it could create a poor seal around your nose and mouth and lower your protection,” says Dr. Carl Cameron, Chief Medical Officer at MVP Health Care. “Also, if wearing two masks makes you more uncomfortable and you touch the mask with contaminated hands, it could put you at a greater risk.”
Wearing two masks at once can also make it more difficult to breathe. “The benefits of two masks are reduced if you have to constantly adjust or remove the mask due to discomfort,” explains Corinne Faneus, a nurse at PlushCare.
What masks work best for double-masking?
According to Dr. Burnett, doubling up with two well-fitted medical masks can be dangerous. “If two masks are used, then one should be a looser fitting cloth or surgical mask to prevent respiratory exhaustion,” he explains. To ensure both effectiveness and comfort, Swans suggests wearing a surgical mask as a first layer, and a snug, cloth mask as the top layer. “If a surgical mask is not available, two masks of high-quality cloth with a tight weave can be worn for increased filtering capabilities,” she says.
Is wearing a mask with multiple layers the same as double-masking?
If you thought multi-layer masks provide the same amount of protection as wearing more than one mask, then Faneus says you might be mistaken. “A single two-layered mask with poor quality material may not be as effective as two masks with high quality cloth,” she explains. “Likewise, a two layered mask that is loose fitting may not be as effective as two masks that have a tight fit around the wearer. The more snug the fit, and better quality of the layers, the more likely to help decrease the spread of COVID-19.”
How much of a difference your double mask makes comes down to you, the wearer.
When all is said and done, Dr. Burnett says the effectiveness of double-masking comes down to the user. “If double masking makes a difference, it is likely due to improved comfort and/or fit, and less about function, as long as the single mask is multi-layer per CDC recommendations,” he explains.
Your best bet for protection against COVID-19, according to Dr. Cameron, is to wear at least one properly fitted, multilayered mask, and practice proper safety measures. “Overall protection from the virus depends on a number of factors, including the quality and fit of a mask, regular hand-washing, the use of hand sanitizer, and practicing social distancing,” he says.