When you’re at the store, you might be wondering what’s causing more shoppers to cover their faces. Are they all unvaccinated or have unvaccinated individuals – like children – in their households?

Not necessarily. Based on the new masking guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a growing number of fully vaccinated individuals are once again slipping on their favorite mask as a way to protect themselves and their communities from COVID-19.

So, what do the updated guidelines mean for you? Who should wear masks and when? To lend some clarity, my colleagues and I put together this guide to help you navigate masking – whether you’re vaccinated or not.

What are the current masking guidelines?

First off, when do you need to wear a mask? In most parts of the country, the recommendations for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are now very similar. We break it down below:

When unvaccinated people should wear a mask:

  • Indoors – Anytime you’re indoors in a public space.
  • Traveling – When using public transportation.
  • Outdoors – You may consider wearing a mask if you’re going to a crowded outdoor event. But in general, you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors.

When vaccinated people should wear a mask:

If you’re vaccinated, the need for a mask depends on how COVID-19 is spreading in your community. If you live in an area that has substantial or high COVID-19 transmission rates, you should wear a mask when:

  • Indoors – Anytime you’re indoors in a public space.
  • Traveling – When using public transportation.
  • Outdoors – In general, you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors. But you may consider wearing a mask if you’re going to a crowded outdoor event, especially when you’re around others who haven’t been vaccinated. Wearing a mask even when outdoors can be an especially good idea if you live with people who are immunocompromised or haven’t gotten the vaccine – for example, young children who aren’t yet eligible.

I thought I didn’t need to wear a mask if I was vaccinated. What changed?

Previous guidance from the CDC was that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear a mask most of the time. But the situation – and COVID-19 – has changed. New variants are more contagious, making it harder to control the spread of COVID-19 – even to people who are vaccinated.

There’s a very small chance – less than 0.01% – that you could get a case of breakthrough COVID-19 even though you’re vaccinated. If you do get a breakthrough case, there’s a good chance your symptoms will be minor. You may even be asymptomatic, meaning you don’t have any symptoms.

However, even if you are asymptomatic, it’s still possible for you to spread COVID-19 to others and they may end up with a more serious case of COVID-19. So, wearing a mask in certain situations makes it even less likely that you’ll get or spread COVID-19 after getting your vaccine.

Why should I get vaccinated if I still need to wear a mask after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

While the new mask guidelines from the CDC recommend that most people wear masks in many situations, you should still get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Getting the vaccine drastically reduces your chances of getting a serious case of COVID-19. And if you’re less likely to get a serious case of COVID-19, you’re also much less likely to have serious long-haul COVID-19 symptoms that can last for months.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is still the best thing you can do to reduce your chance of getting a serious case of COVID-19 or spreading it to others.

If everyone else is wearing a mask or getting vaccinated, why do I need to? What about herd immunity?

There’s been a lot of talk about population immunity, also called herd immunity. That’s what happens when a majority of the population is immune to a disease and protects those who aren’t by stopping the spread of it.

But the reality is that, with COVID-19, we still don’t know if population immunity is possible. And even if it is possible, we don’t know how long it could take to get there – it may take years.

Most of us want things to get back to normal before then. That’s why vaccination and masking are the best and clearest ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 without many more people getting sick.

What is the best mask for COVID-19?

There are many good choices, including cloth masks and a variety of disposable masks such as surgical masks, KN95 masks and N95 respirators. But no matter what type of mask you choose, there are some key things to look for.

Top three features of the best COVID-19 face masks

#1 – A mask that fits well

  • Look for a mask with a nose wire.
  • After putting it on, there should be no gaps on the sides of the face or around the nose that would allow air to escape.
  • If the mask doesn’t fit well, consider using a mask fitter or a brace. For example, if you have a lot of facial hair, it may prevent a tight seal.

#2 – A mask that is thick enough

  • Cloth masks should be at least two layers. You’ll know your mask is thick enough if it blocks light.
  • Disposable surgical masks should be 3-ply.
  • Some types of masks can be layered for added protection. A recommended option is wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask. However, don’t try combining two disposable masks or wearing an N95 with any additional mask.
  • The CDC has developed a short video showing how to knot and tuck masks to improve fit.

#3 – A mask that is clean and dry

  • Disposable masks should be thrown away after use.
  • Cloth masks should be cleaned daily.

What kind of mask should I NOT wear?

You should NOT wear these masks:

  • Any mask with a vent or valve – These kinds of masks allow breath particles to escape, so they may be more likely to spread the virus.
  • Masks made from materials that make it hard to breathe – Vinyl is a common mask material that can inhibit your breathing. Choose cotton or polyester instead.

Should I start using a N95 respirator?

Earlier in the pandemic it was important to reserve N95 masks for front-line workers. Now that they are more widely available, should everyone wear them all the time? Not necessarily.

If you live in a part of the country with a high or a substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission, cloth masks and other disposable masks offer good protection against the spread of COVID-19. However, masks work best if everyone else is masking up as well.

So if you’re wondering if you should switch to N95, consider where you’re going and who you’ll be around. Are other people wearing masks? Will you be around people who may be unvaccinated or have COVID-19?

If you decide to wear a N95, watch out for fake respirators. The CDC estimates that about 60% of available respirators are fake and has provided tips to identify approved respirators. Also, try to steer clear of N95 respirators labeled for surgical or medical use – these masks should be prioritized for health care workers, so they have the right protection to safely do their jobs.

How to wear a face mask

Handling your mask safely helps make it even more effective at limiting the spread of germs. Follow these steps to put on your mask the right way:

  1. Wash your hands before putting on your mask.
  2. Place your mask over your mouth and nose, and secure it under your chin. Masks that don’t cover bothyour mouth and your nose aren’t effective.
  3. Try to fit your mask snugly against the sides of your face.
  4. Make sure you can breathe easily.
  5. Avoid touching your mask, except by the straps.
  6. If you’re unvaccinated, try to keep a 6-foot distance between yourself and others. Mask wearing combined with social distancing is a super-powered combination.

Take our mask-wearing tips with you (PDF)

Wearing a mask is uncomfortable for me. Does that mean I shouldn’t wear one?

Masks aren’t one size fits all – literally.

If you find your mask is uncomfortable, always slipping or too tight against your skin, don’t give up. Most likely, you have a mask that’s too big, too small or not made from the right material. As a result, it’s not feeling right to you.

Effective masks come in many shapes and sizes, and they’re made from many kinds of materials. Look around for another mask to find one that feels better. Eventually, you’ll discover one that’s just right.

How do I take care of my masks?

Keep your masks in tip-top shape by handling, storing and cleaning them properly:

  1. Don’t touch your mask, except for taking it on and off. When you do take it on and off, handle only by the straps.
  2. Store your mask in a resealable bag when you’re not using it. This helps prevent germs and dust from settling on it.
  3. Clean cloth masks after each day you use them. Disposable masks should be thrown away after use.

Take our mask storage tips with you (PDF)

How should I clean my masks?

Machine washing

Cloth masks can be washed along with your regular laundry and detergent. Use the warmest possible water setting. It’s okay to run them through the dryer afterward, too.

Hand washing

Clean your cloth masks by mixing 5 tablespoons of disinfectant bleach with 1 gallon of water. Soak the mask for five minutes. Then, let it air dry, preferably in direct sunlight.

What are some tips to make wearing a mask easier?

I don’t know about you, but as a doctor, it’s sometimes hard to know where my day will take me. That’s why I keep a small stash of masks in my car and office – it’s easy to grab one and go, no matter what’s on my schedule. Consider doing the same, like keeping fresh masks in your backpack or purse.

Wearing a mask doesn’t have to be a drag. You can customize your mask in all kinds of fun ways to show your personality or support (Packers or Vikings … we won’t judge). One of my colleagues wears differently colored masks depending on the weather. Another tries to match her masks to her outfit. Look at masks as a way to express yourself!

How do I stick with mask wearing and overcome “mask fatigue”?

We’ll be the first to admit it: sometimes it can be hard to see the point of safety precautions – especially since the pandemic has been going on for a whole year now. This is a normal and natural thought called “caution fatigue” or “mask fatigue.”

If you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask in most situations. If you’re unvaccinated, overcome mask fatigue with these tips:

  • Focus on your breathing – Taking longer, slower breaths while you’re wearing a mask can help you feel calmer and more comfortable.
  • Take breathing breaks – In a safe space (ideally outside), take off your mask and get two or three deep breaths with your diaphragm or belly.
  • Stay hydrated – Your nose is designed to take in moisture, but sometimes this can become difficult when you’re wearing a mask. To stay energized, make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Relax – Take a few moments to loosen up your body (and your mind). We recommend shoulder shrugs, arm circles, side-to-side bending … any simple motion that doesn’t cause pain.

Take our overcoming mask fatigue tips with you (PDF)

If you’re struggling to stick with mask wearing, remember you’re looking out for the people you care about. As an act of kindness and neighborliness, it’s also one of the simplest good deeds you can do.

We will get through COVID-19, but only when we all pitch in

It’s been quite a while since the COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out. So it’s no surprise why we’re all wondering, how long will we wear masks after the vaccine?

I know you want this pandemic to end – my colleagues and I working in health care do too. It’s going to take all of us doing our own part to stop COVID-19 in its tracks through vaccination and wearing masks.

These might seem like small actions that won’t make much of a difference. But little actions build up – and they become big changes that have big impacts.

And that’s what we need to finally put this pandemic behind us for good: all of us chipping in. After all, it’s our duty to each other and the ones we care most about.