Is wearing a mask while traveling still helpful if you're the only one?
The Biden administration's mask requirements for airplanes and other mass transit are no longer in effect during a review of a ruling by a federal judge in Florida that struck down the order. Some travelers welcomed Monday's ruling, but others have decided to keep their masks on.
Face masks offer the most protection against the spread of Covid-19 when everyone wears them. But research also suggests that masks can protect the wearer alone, by acting as a barrier between particles and their nose and mouth. When one person is masked and others are not, it's called one-way masking.
The level of protection with one-way masking depends largely on two factors: how well your mask fits and how effectively the mask material filters out particles that can carry viruses. Masks like N95s and KN95s will generally be more protective than surgical masks or cloth masks because they can make a tighter seal against your face. And surgical masks tend to do a better job at filtering than cloth masks for a similar fit.
Different masks will fit different faces better or worse, and so it is important to find one that fits you well. For example, you could potentially adjust the ear loops so that the mask fits more tightly. Even the best mask is only as good as the fit. A well-fit N95 can reduce the amount of potentially infectious particles that you inhale by more than a factor of 20 times.
Even if everyone around you is maskless, a well-fitting N95 mask can reduce the amount of infectious particles you could breathe in.
Cloth masks were encouraged earlier in the pandemic while other protective equipment was in short supply can filter large droplets. More effective masks, such as N95s, can filter those in addition to the smaller aerosols or particles that infected people may breathe out.
N95 respirators that are approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health can filter at least 95% of particles in the air when properly fitted. Surgical or disposable masks are about 5% to 10% less effective than N95 respirators.
A CDC study published in February found that people who reported always wearing a mask indoors while in public were less likely to test positive for Covid-19 than people who didn't wear masks between February and December 2021.
Among more than 500 people who reported the type of mask they wear, masking "lowered the odds of testing positive" for Covid-19 by 56% among those who wore cloth masks, 66% among those who wore surgical masks and 83% among those who wore N95 or KN95 respirators, compared with people who wore no mask at all.
If you are an individual who is immunocompromised or have immunocompromised or unvaccinated family members, one-way masking can still be effective. The key is to use the best mask available, preferably one with an N95 respirator as they offer a high degree of protection.
Howard, Jacqueline. “Is Wearing a Mask While Traveling Still Helpful If You're the Only One?” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Apr. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/19/health/one-way-mask-benefits-travel-covid/index.html.