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Dec. 15, 2021, 2:00 p.m. EST

Doctors reveal exactly what kind of face mask travelers should wear on an airplane to protect against COVID-19

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Alisa Wolfson

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If you’re traveling for the holidays — or just taking a much-needed vacation or essential business trip — you may be wondering: What is the masking protocol for optimally safe air travel? Before you get into the weeds of finding the perfect mask, first and foremost, get vaccinated, and remember this: A variety of masks, worn correctly and consistently, offer protection against COVID-19. An “important thing to consider is wearing it correctly,” says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, associate professor of clinical medicine, pulmonary and critical care at the Keck Hospital of USC. That means it covers both your nose and your mouth, with the mask secured under your chin. (Our guide to wearing a mask properly is here ). That said, the N95 mask offers the most protection against COVID-19 and the delta variant, with KN95 masks a close second, experts say. Here are some you may want to consider:

  • Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator , $0.78 per mask on Amazon Shaped like a duck’s bill, this mask is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, and Wirecutter gives it a shout-out on its list of masks you can trust, noting that it is “oddly comfortable.”

  • Powecom KN95 Respirator Mask, $0.80 per mask on Bone Fide Masks “They are soft on the skin and create a tight seal all the way around, from the bridge of the nose to the underside of the chin,” writes New York magazine, which recommended this mask. And Wirecutter calls this a versatile KN95 mask because of ear loops that stretch well for a wider fit, but can also knot easily for a snugger one. There’s also a headband version for those who prefer it or find the ear-friendlier style to provide a better fit.

But don’t think it’s N95 or bust: Wearing an N95 mask correctly for prolonged periods of time can be uncomfortable for some people, and that can lead to people taking mask breaks — which doesn’t fly. Dr. Shira Doron, infectious-disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, says these masks can cause some people to feel shortness of breath, lightheadedness or headaches, and that “some people find they need more mask breaks and are less protected overall.” If that’s you, it’s OK: Any mask is better than no mask , or a mask you’re going to take on and off. Find one you know you can wear for the entire trip.

What can I do beyond masking to stay safer while traveling?

Even if you’re masked while traveling, it’s important to follow social-distancing guidelines. “Practice social distancing throughout your journey at check-in, security screening, boarding and baggage claim. Select seats apart from other passengers if possible, and ask to be moved if possible. Make sure you travel with your own mask, wipes and sanitizer. All together, these can significantly decrease your chances of contracting the virus during air travel,” says Dasgupta .

How likely am I to get coronavirus from air travel?

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of preventative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, notes that there have been cases where COVID-19 was transmitted on a plane, but your risk of getting coronavirus from air travel is less than in other settings because the air on planes is filtered more frequently than it is even in hospitals and operating rooms. “In an office space, the air is exchanged three to four times an hour; in an operating room, it’s five times an hour, or every 12 minutes; and on an airplane, particularly larger equipment, it’s every three minutes.” What’s more, this air exchange is made up of 75% fresh air from outside and just 25% filtered air, according to Klausner. And the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, says there’s a low on-board transmission risk . Wear your mask the entire time, both while you’re on the plane and throughout your travels ,to reduce risk as much as possible.

What if I’m not vaccinated?

Even if you’re masked while traveling, it’s important to get vaccinated and follow social-distancing guidelines. The CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated. But if you have to fly, you should take even more precautions to avoid becoming infected or infecting the people around you. “This includes social distancing whenever possible, avoiding eating or drinking in poorly ventilated or crowded areas, and wearing a mask,” says Dasgupta. 

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