Face masks: so hot this season. (We need to take the LOLs when we can get ’em, right?).

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent many into a preventive panic, donning face masks as a sort of immunity accessory. But not all masks are created equal, and not everyone needs to be wearing one. Here’s what you need to know.

Masks are one of many tools to protect against the transmission of viruses. One way you can catch a virus is by inhaling or ingesting droplets of respiratory fluid from someone who has it.

That doesn’t mean licking someone’s face — it can simply mean breathing too close to someone who sneezes without covering their mouth.

According to a 2013 study, the spread of a virus can be significantly reduced if people who have the virus wear surgical masks. And a 2015 study noted that surgical masks are a vital means of physical protection for healthcare workers when treating people who are sick.

Also, for all that is holy: WASH👏 YOUR👏 HANDS.👏 Frequent handwashing is an incredibly effective way to protect yourself, since viruses can live on all kinds of surfaces (doorknobs, cardboard packaging, plastic, you name it) that you touch all the time.

To protect yourself from the novel coronavirus, there are two types of masks to consider: surgical masks and respirator face masks.

Surgical face masks

Surgical face masks are relatively loose-fitting disposable masks. They are FDA-approved medical devices, and many healthcare professionals, including dentists and doctors, use them when treating patients.

Only masks with a fine mesh can trap small organisms like viruses, and the masks you find at your local drugstore probably won’t do the trick. They also have to be worn the right way to be effective.

And face masks, no matter how effective, won’t protect your eyes — a possible target for airborne contaminants.

Respirator face masks

Respirator face masks are a bit of a step up. Unlike surgical face masks, respirators are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the CDC to protect against large and small particles.

If they fit someone’s face to form a perfect seal, respirators can protect against airborne contagions like anthrax and tuberculosis.

This kind of mask is often referred to as an N95 respirator mask because it can filter 95 percent of airborne particles — including viruses and potentially toxic materials like paint.

Unlike surgical face masks, respirator masks have a rating system to designate how effectively they block out airborne contaminants. Some can filter up to 99.7 percent of small particles from the air, and those masks are given a 100 rating.

As tempting as it may be to mask up, it’s not always a good idea. The CDC does NOT encourage healthy people to wear face masks as protection against COVID-19 or any other respiratory illness.

Instead, face masks should be reserved for medical professionals and people showing symptoms.

The CDC also recommends healthcare workers mask up when treating those with the ordinary flu and any patients demonstrating symptoms of respiratory infections.

All that being said, if you feel sick, wearing the right kind of face mask can help prevent you from spreading the virus to others.

A face mask is only effective if worn correctly.

  • Make sure the mask fits firmly over your nose, mouth and chin.
  • Don’t touch your mask until you take it off.
  • If you think you’re sick and want to get treatment, wear a mask to the doctor’s office to protect others.
  • If you’re particularly susceptible to the virus or its complications and the illness is widespread in your community, it’s a good idea to wear a mask in social settings.
  • Mask up when you’re within 6 feet of someone who’s sick.
  • NEVER reuse a mask. Toss it in the trash immediately after use, and wash your hands pronto.

If you’re not sick, immunosuppressed, particularly at risk, or a healthcare professional, the answer is probably “no.”

There are other measures (like WASHING YOUR HANDS!) that are effective and free and don’t rob healthcare professionals of the equipment they need during this urgent time.