A nurse holds up a sign to protest the lack of personal protective gear available in Orange, Calif. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Face masks have become a necessity in public life so all Americans can protect themselves and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but medical masks can be hard to come by.

Why it matters: Some states and businesses are requiring patrons to wear some type of protective facial gear in order to enter establishments or be in public. Global mask shortages have made it difficult for even health care workers and essential workers to properly protect themselves in riskier environments.

Reality check: These masks will only protect if worn properly over the nose. The masks are not effective substitutes for handwashing or social distancing, and should be disinfected regularly or laundered for reuse. Here's what you need to know:

N95
An N95 with air filtering valve. Photo: Pierre Teyssot/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Recommended only for health care workers on the front lines helping coronavirus patients, because of a shortage. Hospitals are asking businesses and the public to donate them.
  • Made of polyester and woven fibers to filter air and block 95% of particles from your airway. Some have filters for easier breathing.
  • Less effective for children and people with facial hair.
Medical mask
Photo: Li Zhihua/China News Service via Getty Images
  • Good at catching large respiratory droplets when the wearer sneezes or coughs.
  • Made of a synthetic, paper-like material that can block about 60%-80% of particles.
  • Disposable and should only be used once.
Homemade mask
Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the public wear non-medical masks when in contact with others.
  • Thicker material is better as long as it's still breathable: layering old T-shirts, a kitchen towel or a bandanna.
  • If you are buying handmade masks online, make sure they are made of fabric with a high thread count or of several layers of fabric.
  • Some have pockets to insert filters for added protection, like coffee filters, paper towels or vacuum bags, per the New York Times.

Go deeper: The race to make more masks and ventilators

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