There are many levels of protection offered by different masks and several tiers of certifications, but overall, masks can be classified the following ways:
FDA Approved: FDA approved means the FDA has received a sample of the masks in question, which are then tested to verify the documentation provided by the manufacturer is accurate and compliant to the specifications needed to receive this level of certification.
FDA Emergency Use Authorized (EUA): The FDA updated and re-issued the EUA for facemasks on April 2020. Here they clarified that, “face masks, including cloth face coverings, that are allowed by the EUA are only allowed for use by the public and health care personnel as source control.” Face coverings under this category may not be used in place of a filtering face piece respirator or surgical masks and have not been tested by the FDA. Their approval is based on the documents the manufacturer has provided.
Medical Grade: These are FDA-regulated face masks, surgical masks, and respirators (filtering face piece respirators, such as N95 respirators) intended for a medical purpose to help prevent the spread of infectious materials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Civilian Grade: Civilian grade masks are made of the same material and design as a medical mask, but do not go through the same certification process to be used in environments where Medical Grade is required. This ultimately cuts down production costs and makes the price accessible for the general population.
Now that you know what the different grades for facemasks are, you can make a more informed decision when choosing face protection. But when buying face masks for every-day use, how do you spot the difference between civilian and medical grade?
The easiest way to make this differentiation is by looking at the ear loops. Civilian grade masks have ear loops, while the specifications for a medical certification require the mask loops to wrap around the head.
These specifications apply not only to 3-Ply procedural face mask, but also to KN95 and N95. Masks that have been tested for filtration and achieved a >95% BFE (Bacterial Filtering Efficiency) would qualify for medical use. However, if the loops only wrap around the ears, they will only be available for civilian use.
Mask guidance varies depending on your vaccination status, local regulations, and local case rates. If you have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the CDC previously stated that you no longer need to wear a mask or socially distance in most indoor and outdoor settings. However, with the increased transmissibility and higher community spread associated with the omicron variant, the CDC now recommends people should wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. If you are immunocompromised, are at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19, or live with someone who is immunocompromised, at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated, you may choose to wear a mask regardless of local transmission levels. If you are vaccinated and have been exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, wear a mask when indoors around others for 10 days following your exposure, and if possible, be tested five days after the exposure.
Those two years of age and older who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, should continue to wear a face mask in all public settings and when around a mix of fully vaccinated and vaccinated people. If you haven't been fully vaccinated, you can, however, go without a mask while exercising outdoors with members of your household and while attending small, outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people from other households. Masks are also recommended inside your home if you live or care for someone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive.
Regardless of your vaccination status, everyone should continue to wear masks in healthcare settings, on trains, buses, planes, or other modes of public transportation, in transportation hubs like airports and bus stations, and in prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. This is to slow the spread of the virus and prevent those who have the virus and don't know it from transmitting it to others. Everyone should also continue to abide by state, local, and tribal mask and social distancing regulations, as well as rules for local businesses and workplaces.