By now, I never leave the house without a face mask. I even stash extras in my car, and at home I have a wide variety of coverings in different patterns and colours. Even so, I've never considered doubling up and wearing two masks at once — until I watched the US Presidential Inauguration on 20th January.
Like me, you may have spotted several attendees and key speakers — including poet Amanda Gorman — wearing not one, but two masks. The first layer was often a white mask (that looked like it might be disposable), and the top layer was a cloth covering. Was this a fashion statement? Extra protection against what looked like a cold winter day? Or, with new, potentially more contagious strains of COVID-19 starting to spread, should we be strengthening our mask game?
Some countries are changing their mask requirements with an eye on combating the new COVID-19 variants — though they're not explicitly recommending double-masking. Germany is now requiring that people wear medical-grade face masks (like N95s or surgical masks) on public transit or to grocery stores, reports The Washington Post. France recently followed suit, mandating that people must wear medical-grade masks or fabric masks with "Category 1" specifications, which have been proven to block at least 90% of particles, in public places, according to CNN. That means many cloth masks won't cut it in these countries. "We are not questioning the masks used up to now," Daniel Camus, a member of the High Council of Public Health in France, told France's public broadcaster. "But as we don't have any new weapons against the new strains, the only thing we can do is to improve the weapons we already have."
To be clear: No one is saying cloth masks don't work at all. They do offer significant protection against the spread of COVID-19. And in the UK, the NHS recommendations around wearing face masks haven't changed: Wear a mask whenever you're in public or around anyone who's not a member of your household.
The NHS isn't yet recommending wearing two face masks. The agency does, however, recommend wearing a non-medical mask that's made up of two to three layers of fabric and has inner filter pockets. And if your favourite mask has one layer, or if the fabric is getting thin (because you've washed it many times), Abisola Olulade, MD, a family medicine physician based in San Diego, says that wearing two masks at once might be a smart strategy.
"If you have a face mask that’s thin, flimsy, falling apart, frayed, or if you put it up to a light and you see light coming through it, it might be helpful to wear another one on top of it," she says. As long as wearing two doesn't affect your breathing capabilities or fit painfully tightly, it could offer much-needed additional protection — especially if you're in any enclosed areas where social distancing may not be possible, such as taxis, grocery stores, or hair salons. If she had to choose, Dr Olulade says that for now, she'd recommend wearing a single effective, two- or three-layered mask that's been approved by the NHS over wearing two, single-layered or non-approved masks. But in all, so long as it doesn't impair your breathing, there's nothing wrong with doubling up — and doing so may offer a little more protection.
Worth nothing: Unlike France or Germany, for now, the NHS isn't recommending that everyone wear medical-grade masks in public — for a good reason. "Healthcare workers have a higher risk of exposure and they have more frequent exposure, and so the guidance now is you preserve [medical-grade masks] for healthcare workers because if people buy up surgical masks it may limit access to PPE," Dr Olulade explains.
These face mask guidelines may change, as they have before. No matter how many masks you're wearing, though, it's still important to socially distance from others, wash your hands often, and stay home and avoid public places as much as possible. We won't be wearing masks forever — but we will be wearing them for a lot longer if we don't continue to take the precautions that we know work.