This story as been updated to reflect new information from the CDC. It was originally published on January 22, 2021.
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 colors. Even so, I've never considered doubling up and wearing two masks at once — until I watched the Presidential Inauguration on January 20.
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 U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that "people wear masks in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people."
But on February 10, the CDC updated their website with new recommendations for how to improve the efficacy of your face mask, and the update touches on double-masking. The agency advises using a cloth mask that has multiple layers of fabric or wearing a disposable mask layered with a cloth mask on top. The CDC's update focuses a lot on fit: The agency says that the second cloth mask should push the edges of the inner disposable mask against your face for better protection. As for what not to do, the CDC advises against doubling up on disposable masks (it won't improve the fit, they say) or combining KN95 masks with any other mask.
If your favorite cloth 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 doubling up might be a smart strategy. To adhere to these new CDC guidelines, wear a disposable mask under the cloth mask, and you'll be good to go.
As long as wearing the additional layer doesn't affect your breathing capabilities or fit painfully tightly, doubling up could offer much-needed protection — especially if you're in any enclosed areas where social distancing may not be possible, such as taxis, grocery stores, or hair salons, Dr. Olulade says. But when she spoke to Refinery29, she said that for now, she'd recommend wearing a single well-fitting, two- or three-layered mask that's been approved by the CDC over wearing two, single-layered or non-approved masks.
Worth nothing: Unlike France or Germany, for now, the CDC 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.
No matter how many masks you're wearing, 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.