General advice to senior travellers on choosing a mask
Ideally staying at least 6 feet apart from others is the best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But as more people get vaccinated, and domestic and International travel recommences wearing a mask when you’re taking public transport including uber and taxis or waiting at the airport for your flight or in Paris, queuing to visit a gallery or museum The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated people should continue wearing masks whenever indoors in public and while in outdoor areas in crowds.
By acting as physical barriers, cloth face coverings can help prevent wearers from transmitting respiratory droplets to the people around them. That goes for everyone, not just people who know or suspect they’re sick, because as a June 2020 review points out, as many as 45% of people infected with the coronavirus might not show any symptoms. Masks can also help filter incoming particles-including small ones, called aerosols-from other people, thereby protecting the wearer, too. As a CDC scientific brief indicates, when everyone wears masks, infection rates decrease significantly.
Wearing a mask isn’t an excuse to ignore social distancing, just as wearing a seatbelt doesn’t justify reckless driving. cloth face masks “are the last line of defense in the hierarchy of controls,” said Ormond, the textile engineer at North Carolina State University. “So, while you are wearing a mask, you still need to social distance and practice good hygiene (handwashing).
Scientists are still determining what materials and construction, exactly, make for the most protective cloth or a fabric mask for the face. But past and current findings, plus common sense, can provide clues. As Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute, explained: “In the absence of randomized controlled studies for SARS CoV-2, you have to look at principles that have been found by clinical effectiveness and lab studies, put it all together, and make sensible recommendations.”
How cloth face masks compare to N95 respirator, KN95 mask, and surgical mask
Most cloth face masks are nowhere near as protective against virus-size particles as a properly fitted N95 respirator, which front-line health-care workers rely on in order to safely care for their patients. A N95 mask is specifically constructed to block the inhalation of particles, including virus-size particles.
A N95 mask should fit the curves of your face without gaping, and they’re fabricated from special material that filters out at least 95% of airborne matter the size of 0.3 micron. An N95 respirator mask‘s fibers are electrostatic and nonwoven (haphazardly arranged), which makes it harder for particles to penetrate. Some N95 masks, including Wirecutter’s picks in our guide to respirators, include valves for easier exhalation. That feature can be great during wildfire smoke conditions. But as the World Health Organization explained to us in an email, when the focus is preventing the spread of the coronavirus, such valves are problematic because by design they can let unfiltered air escape, meaning covid 19 virus can be spread.
A KN95 mask (which the US Food and Drug Administration refers to as “filtering facepiece respirators”) are manufactured in China according to Chinese standards, which vary slightly from US standards (most KN95 masks have ear loops instead of headbands, for instance). Like a N95 mask, KN95 masks are required to filter out at least 95% of airborne droplets the size of 0.3 micron.
Unlike respirators, surgical disposable mask is not meant to create an airtight fit, so droplets can sneak through gaps around the cheeks. But the material itself, consisting of nonwoven layers, typically filters more and smaller particles than most cloth masks, and could potentially be more protective-if only the mask could be worn snug to the face.
The “surgical-style” masks you see online and in many stores are probably not professional-grade surgical masks. They’re just pleated face masks made from layers of various nonwoven materials.
What’s more, many mask makers aren’t even selling a true surgical mask at retail; for instance, 3M told us it’s distributing surgical mask(s) for use by only front-line and essential workers and some industrial workers. That’s not to say surgical-style face masks can’t be helpful, but exactly how protective they are remains unclear, absent any regulation. As we’ll explain in more detail below, an extra layer can’t hurt (unless the layer makes it so hard to breathe that you take off the mask), and nonwoven materials such as the polypropylene layers in surgical and (presumably) surgical-style masks can bolster protection against outgoing and incoming particles. So instead of using a filter in your well-fitting cloth face mask, wearing a surgical-style mask underneath it is another way to layer up and double mask. The two work in tandem: When wearing multiple masks, a good cloth face mask can enhance a surgical-style face mask‘s seal, while a surgical-style facemask can bolster the cloth face mask‘s protection factor. If worried then a double mask combination can be expected to enhance your protection in the covid 19 pandemic.
What to consider when buying a cloth face mask
The basic tenets of using a face covering are fairly straightforward. “You want the mask to go over your nostrils and your mouth in such a way that it doesn’t slip off,” said Robin Patel, past president of the American Society for Microbiology. Even a bandana tied around your head is better than nothing. But if you’re indoors with strangers or in a crowd in outdoor areas and you want to maximize the potential protection to others and yourself, you might as well choose something more substantial.
When you cough without a mask on, aerosols fly out of your mouth as far as about 8 feet on average, according to a June 2020 study. Tie on that bandana, and outgoing aerosols get only as far as 3 feet 7 inches on average, the authors found. Wear a well-fitted two-layer quilting-cotton mask, and those airborne particles, on average, stop short at a mere 55mm (2½ inches).
Although it’s true that some masks filter much better than others, a mask won’t help if it’s constantly slipping down your nose or it feels so suffocating that you’re forced to take it off. To find the best mask for you, focus on fit and comfort, and protection should follow (assuming you wear it properly, of course, and also practice social distancing and use hand sanitizer ensuring good hand hygiene whenever possible).
Fit: Creating a protective seal
For a fitted face mask to work to its fullest potential, it has to fit. “When there are large gaps for the airborne particles or droplets to come out, it doesn’t matter how good the filter is or how many layers you have,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. As research at Northeastern University suggests, a mask that conforms closely to the face can enhance performance by as much as 50% over the same mask that doesn’t.
A properly fitting mask extends vertically from the bridge of your nose (just below the eye line) to about an inch under your chin, and it stretches horizontally from cheek to cheek, or even better, as close to your ears as comfortable.
Here’s what to do to make sure that happens:
Study the sizing chart.
Masks are typically non-refundable; to ensure a reasonable fit, note a mask‘s dimensions and then measure your face, including the centimetres added by any facial hair and the height of your nose, with a soft tape measure to confirm that the numbers correspond. (Some brands provide face measurements as opposed to maskmeasurements.) Note, too, that a pleated mask expands when you adjust it to cover your face. For instance, the height of the Rendall Co. Sentry mask we like is 75mm pleated and 175mm expanded. When in doubt, ask customer service for detailed dimensions. If a mask is too short, it won’t stay put on your nose or chin. If it’s too tall, the edges can block your vision, poke your eyes, or hang too loose around your chin, said Jun. Too-wide masks can affect how the elastic fasteners fit around your ears or head. If your measurements fall in between designated sizes, size up and adjust the fasteners as needed, or better yet, look for another mask.
Don’t fall for “one size fits all.”
That one size might not fit you. For example, the one-size-fits-all Banana Republic mask we like is 150mm tall by 210mm wide, whereas the one-size-fits-all Hedley & Bennett mask is 175mm high by 225mm wide. Among masks that come in multiple size options, not all size designations are created equal. “Even 10mm can make a difference,” said Jun, especially if you have a wider or thinner face, a longer chin, or a higher nose bridge.
A properly fitting mask extends vertically from the bridge of the nose (just below the eye line) to about an inch under the chin, and it stretches horizontally from cheek to cheek, or even better, as close to the ears as comfortable.
Look for a nose-bridge wire.
A mask should gently hug the lines of your cheeks, dip along the sides of your nose, and curve over its bridge. A moldable wire helps a mask do that. Without that close fit, droplets can sneak in and out along the sides of your nose.
Consider the mask‘s shape.
Cone silhouettes are likely to curve to the cheeks better than a plain piece of cloth that lies flat or a rectangular mask with pleats does. That’s probably why the Northeastern University researchers have found that nylon-stocking seals often make less of a performance difference when layered over cone-shaped masks than when layered over masks of other shapes (though exactly how much of a difference may vary for different people; only one person took part in the study). “The fit was already good,” said study co-author Loretta Fernandez, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern. Cone-shape masks have vertical seams that allow the fabric to “tent up,” giving it some height like a bra cup. Depending on the placement of the straps, cone-shaped masks can fit quite nicely on the cheeks.
However, masks with pleats provide more leeway for higher nose bridges, said Michael Kaye, who teaches draping and sewing as an adjunct professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Compared with less generously cut cone masks, pleated masks may also feel more comfortable to some people because they allow for space between the fabric and your cheeks. (Read further for tips on improving the seal.)
Check for adjustable fasteners.
A too-snug fit, one that leaves marks on your skin, may tempt you to take the mask off. For a secure fit, adjust any back-of-the-head elastic bands by either tying a knot or placing the band atop a ponytail. (Adjustments to the top band are especially crucial for helping the mask fit snugly around your cheeks.) Elastic ear loops with cord stops allow for a customizable fit. If you consistently find headband and ear-loop fasteners to be too tight, or if they get in the way of hearing aids, consider ties (as on the Rendall Co. mask we like); the drawback is that ties tend to loosen more easily over the course of the day.
Examine the fastener texture.
Headbands with ridges can grip hair better without sliding, especially if your hair is straight, said Kaye. Ear loops made with elastic cords hang more easily on less-rigid ears but may make your ears feel sore after a few hours, especially if they’re too tight.
Pleated masks are designed to accommodate different nose-bridge heights and chin depths.
Comfort: Balancing breathability with filtration
Just the idea of something obstructing your nose and mouth can be distressing-hence the appeal of lightweight, single-layer masks made of more breathable fabric. But if your goal is to protect yourself as well as others, a well-fitting maskthat balances breathability with filtration efficiency (the percentage of particles that a mask can block) works best, assuming you keep it on.
Protecting others is relatively easy: Almost any cloth can halt the larger-than-5-microns globules shooting from your mouth when you’re talking loudly, singing, coughing, or sneezing. But it’s snagging the 1-micron or smaller particles-which can come from you or others breathing and talking at regular volume-that’s tough.
Early in the pandemic, health officials considered those tiny aerosols to be less worrisome, but now, more than a year later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared quite the opposite: “COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth.”
In October 2020, the CDC reported that it’s possible to be infected in a poorly ventilated indoor space by a person more than 2 metres away or even shortly after an infected person has left the room. The agency also noted that timing matters, too: You’re more vulnerable to infection the longer you share air space with an infected person. Specifically, spending more than a cumulative 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours with an infected person constitutes “close contact.” (Independent experts have disputed the rationale behind both the 2-metres-of-distance and 15-cumulative-minutes-of-exposure guidelines, stating that even though the new guidelines are an improvement, droplets can infect others well over 2 metres away, depending on the ventilation, and this can happen in fewer than 15 total minutes.)
In February 2021, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) approved a new standard for barrier face coverings in terms of filtration and breathability, and also fit. The 16-page set of guidelines (you can access the new standard, known as designation F3502, here, with free registration) details the necessary design and testing considerations required, much of which we discuss in this guide. However, because ASTM International doesn’t certify or validate a product as meeting these criteria-it simply created them-it’s up to manufacturers to follow through, and government agencies to mandate the standard. Some mask makers may decide to attain these specifications; some may not. Those that do would be able to state clearly on their packaging specific breathability and filtration values that can help shoppers make an informed decision (assuming the labeling is truthful).
As CDC/NIOSH health communication specialist Nura Sadeghpour explained in December 2020, “products that don’t meet the standard may still have some utility, but won’t be able to claim that they meet the ASTM requirements, which provide a baseline for performance.”
In the meantime, many unknowns remain, including how much of the virus a person must inhale to cause an infection, said Sarah Brooks, director of the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry and the Environment at Texas A&M University. What’s more, no mask is guaranteed to provide complete protection. If you’re struggling to leave a mask on, play around with different materials. “You need to balance comfort and risk,” said Virginia Tech aerosol scientist Linsey Marr. To that end, consider the features below.
Your mask is like a chain-link fence. “The more thread in a given area, the more solid the barrier, the harder it is to get through,” explained North Carolina State University textile scientist Bryan Ormond. As the aforementioned April 2020 study suggests, thread count (the number of vertical and horizontal threads in a square inch) matters. With droplets smaller than 0.3 micron at low flow (similar to what happens with breathing), a two-ply 80-thread-count quilting cotton exhibited far less filtration efficiency than a two-ply 600-thread-count pillowcase-like material. Unfortunately, few mask makers provide thread-count information online, and you’re left with taking their word for how “sturdy” or “tightly woven” the materials they’re using are. So before you buy, make sure your mask at least has multiple layers (read on), preferably with a filter pocket (see below). When the mask arrives, hold it up to the light. “The more visible openings you see in the fabric structure, the less effective the material may be at filtering particles,” Ormond said. To bolster a mask made with loosely woven fabric, add more layers in the filter pocket so as to block more of the light coming through (but not so much that the mask feels suffocating). Alternatively, you can wear a mask made with nonwoven materials underneath a cloth mask.
According to a June 2020 meta review, multilayer masks, or a double mask are more protective than a single-layer mask, and specifically “12-16-layer cotton masks” are associated with protection. A more realistic goal, experts say, is to aim for a minimum of two layers: a somewhat water-resistant outer layer and a comfortable inner layer. A pocket for an additional middle layer, or filter, can be useful for higher-risk situations. “The mask is like an obstacle course for the virus to get through. Each layer can make a difference,” said Amy Price, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab.
This is the rare feature that enhances both breathability and filtration. By “generous,” we don’t mean a mask that’s too big for you. It should be a well-fitting mask that’s intentionally designed with a larger surface area so that it stands “taller” on your face (to allot more space between the fabric and your nose), wider on your face (with each side stretching closer to each ear), or ideally both. This way “you have more air coming through the cloth, and that air is filtered, as opposed to air sneaking in from the sides,” said Supratik Guha, a professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, who co-authored the April 2020 study on mask materials. A simply cut flat mask creates the opposite situation: It sits close to your nose and mouth, so you have less filtered air to breathe in at any given time.
Filter pocket or incorporated filter:
Some masks, including those we like best, have at least two layers of cloth and a pocket that allows you to bolster your mask with an additional layer or two of your choice, whether it’s another piece of cloth or a sheet of nonwoven material. Of course, you can also leave it empty-wearing the mask as is or strapped over a surgical-style mask.
Nonwoven materials consist of fibers spun into a random web that is then heated to form a sheet. Slipped in between two or more fabric layers (either placed in a pocket or sewn in), the nonwoven material complicates the existing maze a virus needs to get through before it can reach your nose and mouth-creating “a tortuous pathway,” said Mark Losego, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech.
There are almost as many nonwoven options being studied as cloth-face–mask filters as there are masks. Stanford’s Amy Price, who co-authored a June 2020 paper on the filtration efficiency of household materials, said that the polypropylene crafting material Oly-Fun can increase particle filtration efficiency by 10% to 20% per layer. This occurs with the help of electrical charging-rubbing it with a rubber glove-which makes that viral obstacle course even more challenging, at least for 24 hours, unless conditions are extremely humid, Price said. Paper towels and tissues can increase filtering capacity by 5% to 10% per layer (again, with electrical charging).
A Texas A&M University paper currently under review (here’s the preprint) notes that non-fiberglass premium anti-allergen air filters-which, like Oly-Fun, also consist of polypropylene-seem promising. Some cloth-mask makers, such as Kitsbow, include their own removable nonwoven filter layers with their masks, along with the option to buy refills.
Slipped in between two or more fabric layers, a nonwoven material complicates the existing maze a virus needs to get through before it can reach your nose and mouth.
View any specific filtration claims with a healthy dose of skepticism-some of the masks tested by the NYT in the lab fell shy of their claims. Washing a filter-incorporated mask weakens the filter over time, too. If you’re stuffing a mask pocket, try to find a filter that covers the entire expanse of the mask and stays put. Otherwise, you’re not taking advantage of the filter’s fullest potential-droplets tend to sneak through portions of a mask with the least resistance.
Selecting a mask or building your mask wardrobe.
Over the course of the NYT researching and reporting many experts they talked to described the face mask marketplace as the “Wild West.” Although updated CDC guidelines and the new ASTM International standards have created a clearer picture of what a good non-medical mask should look like, it’s hard for shoppers to know whether any one mask will fit on their face, much less provide sufficient filtration.
So we started with the basics: fit and comfort. Since people’s faces and preferences are different, your mask should have a nose-bridge wire and some way to fine-tune the fasteners. Consider also a mask with a filter pocket or a sewn-in filter. A fabric mask that is a machine-washable design should also a primary choice.
Consider a mask wardrobe
With the face mask requirement for travel being the new normal for some time, you’ll likely want to have a few reusable mask(s) on hand. That way, you’ll always have a backup at the ready, as well as some leeway if you don’t get to the laundry as planned.
If you find a reusable mask you love, buying multiples of that style may be best. You may also consider collecting a handful of different styles, each of which is more or less practical for different situations. The fitted face mask you might choose to wear for a trip to the grocery store, for example, isn’t necessarily the same face masks for travel you’d reach for each day.
Keep your masks accessible.
Store them in a small soft bag in your luggage or on hooks near the door so you’re less likely to rush out without one. If you’re using filters in a mask pocket, have them at the ready, too. A disposable mask or multiple masks in your back pack or hand bag is a good idea given current travel restrictions.
Stash a spare or two in your Backpack
This way, if the one you’re wearing gets dirty or wet, you’ll have another handy. “Viruses thrive when in wet, warm materials,” said the Kirby Institute’s Raina MacIntyre. “A wet mask becomes an incubator. Take the fitted face mask off immediately without touching the face piece and put on a new one.” and of course if in outdorr ares or say at the airpot then remember to use hand sanitizer to be sure. Disposable face masks to share with your travel companion maybe the perfect gift for sharing when travelling in a group or when on a long haul flight on a plane, simply to keep things fresh.
Gather a range of materials and mask shapes.
Be realistic about what you’ll be willing to wear in different situations. Try a new-to-you mask on at home so that you can evaluate the fit and your comfort before wearing it in public. If you can buy more than one mask type, consider choosing one for rainy days, with a top layer treated in such a way as to prevent droplets from soaking in. No masks are waterproof, so you’ll need to change your mask if it does start pouring with rain.
Include a mix of fasteners.
Ear loops tend to be easy to put on and take off, which is ideal for running impromptu errands and dining outside. For longer-term wear, you may want a mask with ties or headbands, which put less pressure on your ears.
How to improve a mask you already own (plus, mask accessories we like)
Typically, worn masks are non-refundable and difficult to donate. But depending on the issue, you might be able to improve matters and keep the problem mask in your rotation. Here are some suggestions:
If a pleated mask gapes around your cheeks:
This problem is common-most people don’t have a rectangular face. If the mask‘s bands don’t help seal off the sides, try adding a chain of three rubber bands, as this clever technique demonstrates. This folding trick (video) was devised for disposable surgical-type masks but may help cloth ones, too, especially if you stitch the creases in place. The Fix The Mask site offers a downloadable template for making a mask brace out of a rubber sheet and also sells premade ones.
If the mask is too big:
If its ear loops are thin enough, tie knots near the ends or add an appropriately sized cord-lock toggle. If the fasteners are too thick, secure a small piece of yarn or string as close to the ends of each loop as appropriate. You can also thread a strap of Velcro through the two ear loops so the mask attaches at the back of your head.
If the ear-loop elastics hurt your ears or interfere with hearing aids or headphones: After you’ve worn ear loops for a few hours, that pressure can be painful. You can try “ear savers,” but the Velcro trick works for this purpose, too.
If the mask doesn’t seal around your nose bridge:
You can upgrade wire-free cloth masks by sewing in your own aluminum strips. Supermarket twist ties can work, too, said Juan Hinestroza, an associate professor of fiber science at Cornell University.
The Best Anti-Fog for Glasses and a Mask
A loose-fitting mask can lead to foggy glasses. If you don’t want to tape the top of your mask to your face, anti-fog drops might help. (So might soap or spit.)
If the mask fabric gets up in your nose or mouth when you breathe:
Mask brackets tent the fabric up over your nose and mouth and maintain the space even as you inhale. Take note, though, that these work only with generously cut masks, which maintain a good seal even as the central portion is propped up.