Former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden was spotted wearing not one but two face masks a few times during the presidential campaign. So just how necessary is it to wear two masks? And does doubling up actually offer any extra protection against COVID-19?
Biden also specifically mentioned wearing two masks during his town hall last week. He spoke about the importance of government figures wearing masks in public and how that can send a message to the public that masks are important.
“When a president doesn’t wear a mask, or makes fun of folks, like me, when I was wearing a mask for a long time, then people say, ‘Well, it mustn’t be that important,'” Biden said, according to the ABC News transcript. “For example, I walked in here with this mask, but I have one of the N95 masks underneath it,” he continued, explaining that he left the N95 backstage.
Experts now agree that COVID-19 spreads mainly through respiratory droplets that contain the virus. If you have COVID-19, you can expel those droplets when you do things like coughing, talking, and sneezing. Then those around you might inhale those droplets and become infected. Or the droplets might land in someone else’s eyes, nose, or mouth. That’s why wearing a mask that can catch those droplets before they spread to someone else is such an important public health tool.
Both N95 and surgical masks are some of the most effective masks at helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, research suggests. In particular, N95 masks can protect both the wearer and those around them from inhaling respiratory droplets that contain the virus, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Because N95 masks and surgical masks are both pretty effective on their own, adding a second mask on top of either of those options won’t necessarily add more protection. When it comes to the cloth masks most of us are wearing, “the more layers, the better,” Tania Elliott, M.D., an immunologist and allergist at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. That means that, theoretically, wearing two masks could “help further reduce respiratory droplets from getting out into the air.”
But there are some concerns that, “when you wear two masks, respiratory droplets can get caught in between the masks,” Dr. Elliot explains. So anyone who wants to double up should avoid setting their masks down on a potentially contaminated surface and should be especially diligent about regularly cleaning their masks.
Just for the record, the CDC recommends that the general public wear masks that contain at least two layers of washable fabric, fit around your face snugly, and completely cover your nose and mouth. The CDC doesn’t recommend wearing masks with exhalation vents, masks made of fabrics that make it hard to breathe, or using face shields or neck gaiters as your only mask. The CDC recommendations don’t mention anything about wearing more than one mask at a time.
But even if wearing two masks doesn’t offer significantly more protection, that doesn’t mean Biden’s double mask habit is totally useless. “This preserves the N95 with a cheaper mask. So you can swap out the top mask and keep using the N95,” Esther Choo, M.D., professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, wrote on Twitter. “The VP is helping us conserve our precious PPE!”
In fact, this strategy is something that some health care professionals have been doing throughout the pandemic when PPE has been in short supply, Dennis Alex, a hospitalist nurse practitioner in Buffalo, N.Y., who has been caring for COVID-19 patients, told USA Today.
So we know that it’s important for the general public to wear face masks, especially in situations where social distancing isn’t possible to maintain. But one mask is likely enough for most of us—as long as you wear it correctly.