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After months of lockdown marked by days working in T-shirts and sweats, a return to wearing work attire—even on a Zoom call—may feel like an odd but welcomed respite. But opting for a striped tie or stud earrings aren’t the only fashion choices on professionals’ minds these days.

Yes, you guessed it: which mask to wear. And while that may sound silly—it’s a cloth to stop person-to-person viral spread, after all—there are actually several factors to consider when choosing your covering. (For a detailed discussion about the challenge of mask communication, see page 12.) Here, our guide to which masks to wear and when.

The Basic

 

 

Consider the flimsy blue mask (or its cloth relative) that is readily available at the drugstore or in bulk through online retailers. They’re often made with an inner layer of soft facial tissue that contains no dye and is gentle on the skin. It’s a no-frills approach but it checks all the boxes for being effective enough and not offending anyone.

Best for: Trying to fly under the radar.

The Political

 

 

When fashion speaks, it can be an agent for change. So it’s no wonder that masks are the 2020 version of slogan T-shirts to convey big messages, from George Floyd’s tragic last words to social-distancing encouragement like “If you can read this, you’re too close.” Making a statement and standing up for what you believe in is praiseworthy under the right circumstances. That said, you’ll probably want to refrain from sporting political masks in the workplace to stay professional.

Best for: Outside the office.

The Luxurious

 

 

Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Chanel: high-end fashion retailers are chiming in with their own versions of face masks, in part to help alleviate medical supply shortages. But it’s a questionable call as to whether donning a pricey mask in an economic downturn shows good taste. And for those fashionistas thinking they can just reuse the Hermès silk scarf hanging in the closet, a word of caution: the CDC has called using such a covering a “last resort.”

Best for: Social distancing on your friend’s yacht.

The Charitable

 

 

It may be the oldest marketing trick in the book to make consumers feel good, so it’s no surprise that fashion brands making reusable cotton masks are donating a portion of proceeds to charity. The bag brand Baggu, for example, donates a pack of masks to healthcare workers for every pack of masks sold, and Gap Inc. has donated more than 50,000 masks to the Boys
and Girls Clubs of America.

Best for: Showing your empathetic side.

The Iron Wall

 

 

N95 masks, which are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration as a surgical mask, certainly provide a high level of protection. But they need to be properly fitted to be effective. What’s more, given the worldwide shortages of medical supplies, these types of masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.

Best for: Visiting your grandmother’s nursing home.

The Alternative

 

 

For those prone to overheating, there’s also the face shield—a clear, bulky option that doesn’t get too hot, covers your entire face (including your eyes), and allows others to see your facial expressions. The jury’s still out on the effectiveness of these, but some say they are possibly even more effective than cloth coverings because they also protect against virus particles entering through the eyes—not just the nose and mouth. A more subtle approach to consider: face masks designed for the hard of hearing that have a clear shield over the mouth.

Best for: Talking to babies and young children.

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