Influenza, or the flu, transmits from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets. Using face masks may help prevent the transmission of infectious respiratory conditions such as the flu.

A quick look at 5 of the best face masks for flu protection

It is important to note that although wearing face coverings may reduce the risk of contracting airborne illnesses such as the flu to some degree, there are no guarantees that they will prevent a person from getting sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people consider wearing masks if they have symptoms of the flu and cannot stay at home during the illness. Additionally, it recommends that parents or caregivers who have the flu wear a mask while caring for or nursing infants.

However, getting annual vaccinations is the primary method of preventing influenza in people at high risk.

Some people may want to use masks to help reduce their risk or the risk for those around them, especially while sick. This is especially important for people who are sick and have compromised immune systems.

People caring for those with compromised immune systems should also wear face masks as often as possible.

Simple face coverings and disposable surgical masks are the best options, as they have similar rates of protection from the flu and do not take away from medical professionals and other workers who rely on N95 masks.

Medical News Today chooses masks based on the following criteria where possible:

  • Type of mask: MNT chooses a range of masks, including surgical, cloth, and N95s.
  • Comfort: MNT chooses masks that provide an adjustable fit or a range of sizes to fit most people.
  • Amount of masks: MNT chooses companies that offer multiple masks per purchase.
  • Cost: MNT chooses masks that fit a range of budgets.

Below are five options a person may consider.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information presented is purely research-based and correct at the time of publication.

Medical News Today follows a strict product selection and vetting process. Learn more here.

Best for a surgical mask: Dynarex Medical Surgical Protective Face Mask

  • List price: around $8
  • Amount of masks: 50 per purchase
  • Pro: comfortable elastic bands
  • Con: not as durable as N95 masks

These are disposable masks that provide a person with a few hours of filtration from outside moisture particles, such as from when a person nearby coughs or sneezes.

The masks comprise different layers, including layers of woven polypropylene. These layers help temporarily filter non-oily and other particles.

The masks have a folded design that completely covers the nose and mouth. The elastic bands tend to be more comfortable than those of some other options.

Compared with other options, however, these masks can be hot. They are also not very durable, but because they are intended for only a few hours of use, this should not be a significant issue.

A study in the journal JAMA found no significant difference between using a medical mask such as this and using a surgical respirator when it comes to preventing influenza. The study focused on over 2,800 healthcare workers.

Surgical masks may actually be most important for people who already have symptoms, in order to reduce community spread. A 2020 study in the journal Nature Medicine found that even poorly fitting surgical masks can significantly reduce the levels of infectious particles that a person with an airborne illness exhales.

Best for a reusable cloth mask: EnerPlex EXTREME Comfort Cloth Face Mask

  • List price: around $25
  • Amount of masks: three per purchase
  • Pro: stretch ear loops for a more secure fit
  • Con: not as effective as surgical or N95 masks

A number of companies make cloth masks for everyday use. Thick, heavy layers of cloth, such as cotton or flannel, can make a decent everyday filter when a person does not have immediate access to a surgical mask.

These masks may reduce the airborne particles that a person releases when they speak, which may reduce community transmission from direct contact with viral particles.

However, a 2015 study found that 97% of particles penetrated cloth masks in comparison to 44% in surgical masks.

A 2020 review states that cloth masks are half as effective as surgical masks, but people can increase protection by ensuring a proper seal, such as by taping the sides of the mask to the face. The authors also state that cloth masks are better than no protection if a person is at high risk of contracting respiratory viruses such as COVID-19.

Therefore, any cloth mask should cover both the nose and the mouth, fit snugly around the face, and have secure straps or ties.

This mask is available in three sizes, which may help provide a more secure fit. It has three layers, which may increase protection. It is also available in 13 colors.

Best for a mask with a flow valve: 3M Particulate Respirator 8511, N95

  • List price: around $16
  • Amount of masks: 10 per purchase
  • Pro: may be less hot to wear due to the flow valve
  • Con: not many sizes available

N95 masks have National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approval, as they block tiny particles and pollutants in the air from getting into the airways. This includes dust and other occupational hazards. They also block out some mold spores and infectious germs.

These N95 respirators are breathable compared with other options, while still providing a good seal due to the adjustable nose clip.

This version of the mask also features a flow valve to help with moisture buildup while filtering. However, this also means that a little unfiltered air gets both in and out of the mask.

There are also not many sizes to choose from. People with very large or very small faces may not find the masks comfortable for everyday use.

The straps are highly elastic, but not very adjustable, which may cause discomfort or irritation for some people.

Best for a microfiber mask: 3M Particulate Respirator 8210, N95

  • List price: around $19
  • Amount of masks: 20 per purchase
  • Pro: adjustable nose clips for a tighter seal
  • Con: no adjustable elastic straps

These masks are a more simple form of N95 mask that is still NIOSH-approved. The masks are made from a microfiber filter, which helps block out particles from the environment.

These masks have a nose clip for some level of adjustability and to help create a tight seal.

That said, the masks do tend to feel hotter and more humid, as they lack any valve system to allow air out. Some people may also find the masks uncomfortable, as the elastic straps are not adjustable and may be tight.

Best for a good seal: 3M 1860 N95 Health Care Particulate Respirator and Surgical Mask

  • List price: $29.99
  • Amount of masks: 20 per purchase
  • Pro: creates a firm seal around the mouth and nose
  • Con: may be hotter to wear than other options

The company states that these masks can effectively filter certain viruses and bacteria.

The masks can hold their shape and create a good seal around the mouth and nose. Additionally, the masks are splatter resistant against fluids and other infectious materials.

However, they have a relatively short shelf life and only last about 3 years on the shelf before becoming less effective. They also do not have an exhalation vent, making them a little hotter than some other options.

The following table compares the masks in this article.

Dynarex Surgical MaskEnerPlex EXTREME3M Particulate Respirator 85113M Particulate Respirator 82103M 1860 N95 Surgical Mask
Type of masksurgical maskclothN95N95N95
Disposable or reusabledisposablereusabledisposabledisposabledisposable
Amount of masks503102020
NIOSH approved?no information availablenot approvedapprovedapprovedapproved
Pricearound $8around $25around $16around $19$29.99

People may wish to consider the following when choosing a mask:

  • Fit: People should ensure the mask will fit snugly around the nose, mouth, and chin. Poorly fitting masks will increase the risk of virus transmission.
  • Layers: Both cloth and medical procedure masks have multiple layers of material. More layers decrease the risk of particles penetrating the mask.
  • Nose wires: Some masks may have nose wires or nose clips that help create a secure and snug fit.

Although wearing a face mask is an important preventive measure against airborne viruses such as the flu, there is no guarantee that it will prevent transmission completely.

As the CDC note, adults with influenza can be contagious 1 day before and up to 7 days after they show symptoms of the illness. Because of this, the spread of influenza may occur when people are unaware that they have the infection.

However, taking steps to reduce the chances of transmission may help prevent the spread of infection.

Wearing a face mask is not the only measure a person can take, however. The first line of defense for people at risk is getting an annual flu vaccination.

Influenza can also spread indirectly when a person comes into contact with an infected surface. Regularly washing hands and sanitizing shared surfaces are also important steps to take to reduce the spread of the flu, especially during flu season.

The CDC states that the yearly flu vaccination is the best way to minimize a person’s risks of catching this virus and avoiding any potential complications.

People may also protect themselves from the flu by making the following changes:

  • avoiding close contact if one or more person is ill
  • staying home from work, school, and any other gatherings if a person is ill
  • covering the mouth and nose while coughing and sneezing
  • cleaning and washing the hands regularly
  • avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth
  • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces regularly
  • having a restful sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a healthy, balanced, diet

Here we answer some common questions about masks for flu protection.

What is the most protective reusable mask?

There is a wide range of quality face masks currently available including cloth masks, medical-grade masks, KN95s, and N95s.

A 2021 study comparing reusable cloth masks, disposable surgical masks, KN95s, and N95s found that N95s with filtering facepiece respirators offered the most protection for people who were at high risk of contracting airborne respiratory illnesses.

Is any N95 mask good for flu?

A 2019 study found that there is no significant difference in the effectiveness of N95 or surgical masks in preventing flu transmissions.

However, a more recent 2021 study found that N95s with filtering facepiece respirators may offer the most protection against airborne viruses.

Do masks protect from the flu virus?

Masks can help protect people from the flu virus.

A 2020 review found that mask use can reduce the risk of contracting a respiratory illness by up to 80%, including the flu virus and COVID-19.

Taking steps to protect against the flu is important, especially for people who may be more at risk of serious complications from these infections.

Wearing face masks is not a guaranteed way to prevent flu infection, as people can be infectious without knowing it.

That said, taking precautions such as wearing a face mask while sick can help reduce community spread.

People with a higher risk of complications from influenza may want to consider other preventive measures, such as getting an annual vaccine.