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Double masking - Are two face masks better than one?

Illustration of a man wearing two blue disposable face masks
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Living through a pandemic means we’ve all had to make changes to our daily lives. One of the biggest changes has been wearing face masks and coverings when we travel on public transport or go into crowded areas.

Since the pandemic started at the beginning of 2020, there’s been a lot of debate about which mask styles are safest, and how to wear them properly. Recently, we’ve seen headlines declaring that wearing two face masks is safer than wearing just one. This came from a study released in February 2021 by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

This study indicated that, when worn correctly, two masks can be better than one. Read on to find out more.

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Why do we need to wear masks?

The first thing to know is that wearing a mask primarily benefits other people. COVID-19 is mostly spread in droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person – if someone carrying the infection wears a mask, they’re much less likely to spread the virus.

Masks can also benefit the wearer by reducing their exposure to infected droplets. This benefit increases if the mask is worn more tightly, or is doubled up, as shown in the CDC study.

What the CDC study found

Researchers on this study looked at how wearing a mask more tightly can lower the chance of COVID-19 exposure, both for people in the mask and for the people around them.

The study found that a few different methods could be used to reduce exposure, including:

  • Wearing a cloth mask over a medical mask
  • Wearing only a medical mask but knotting the ear loops and tucking in loose fabric

The study showed that masks worn in this way decreased exposure to “infectious aerosols” by 95%. It also showed that these methods can significantly increase the benefit for the person wearing the mask, not just the people around them.

How to wear two masks safely

If you want to wear two masks, feel free to do so. Just make sure that you wear your masks safely and correctly, and that you’re still able to breathe comfortably.

In the CDC study, researchers used these types of mask in combination:

  1. A 3-ply “medical procedure” or “surgical mask”. This type of mask is often blue and pleated. It’s the kind that you see doctors and dentists wear, and it’s designed to be thrown away after one use.
  2. A 3-ply cloth mask. This is an ordinary face mask that most people use when going into public places.

The study found that worn on their own, the masks blocked around 50% of cough particles. When worn together, with the cloth mask covering the surgical mask, over 80% of cough particles were blocked.

Good alternatives to wearing two masks

You might find that wearing two masks isn’t right for you. If this is the case, there are a few things you can try:

  • Wear a surgical mask with the ear loops knotted and the excess fabric tucked away – visit this page from the CDC and scroll down to “Figure 1” for an illustration of a tied and tucked surgical mask
  • Try out a few different cloth masks until you find one that fits your face snugly, covering your nose and mouth without leaving gaps at the side
  • Pick a multi-ply mask e.g. one that has several layers

Another option is to wear an FFP3 mask. This is a single-use disposable mask that offers really high protection for the wearer. These types of mask are usually worn by healthcare workers, but they’re also available for the general public.

An FFP3 mask has a particle filtration rate of 99%. It’s thick, cushioned and fitted to your face. This type of mask also has an exhalation valve that lets you breathe easily, and reduces the build-up of heat and moisture.

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Other tips for wearing a mask safely

When you’re wearing a mask remember to do the following:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly or use hand sanitiser: 1) before putting your mask on 2) before taking your mask off 3) after you’ve taken your mask off
  • Try to only touch the straps or clips when putting on or taking off your mask
  • Avoid touching the front of your mask when you’re wearing it
  • Avoid taking off your mask and putting it back on several times in a row
  • Throw the mask away if it’s disposable once you’ve finished wearing it
  • Wash the mask if it’s designed for reuse
  • Never share your mask