With the ongoing COVID pandemic, masks have gone from a rare necessity to an essential daily item. This sudden change has led to many people wondering exactly how to choose the best mask - especially considering how saturated the market has become in the past couple of years.
Finding a suitable mask can be a challenging process. There’s no way to know exactly what mask is the most comfortable, effective, and fits best before trying them all. On top of this, there are so many different types of masks! With so many choices these days that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
We wanted to put together an article discussing the essentials that need to be considered before purchasing such a mask. While it’s impossible to tell exactly what mask fits you best before trying it, the aspects below will help provide an indication as to which mask is best for your needs.
While most of these points focus on the protective capabilities (they are the most important consideration when getting a mask!), there are also other points worth pondering. Over the long term, price and appearance become important too. With that being said, let’s straight in to what you need to consider before buying a mask.
1) Do You Need a Reusable or Disposable Mask?
The first important aspect to consider is whether a disposable or reusable mask will suit your needs best. Reusable masks will cost more initially, but they are also designed to be used for tens or hundreds of hours. On the other hand, disposable masks should usually be disposed of after one use.
Reusable masks have a significant advantage when it comes to long term price. While the initial investment is higher, the ongoing costs tend to be lower. This means that after a couple of months, reusable masks become cheaper than their disposable counterparts.
Disposable masks aren't without benefit, however. Depending on the use case, they can be more hygienic as they can easily be disposed of and replaced. This is especially useful when you're in an environment where potentially infectious or dangerous particles could adhere to the outer surface of the mask.
While most reusable masks can be washed after removing the filter, this process can often take a few hours or more. Therefore, it's good to have a few disposable masks on hand to fill the gaps when you are washing or drying your reusable mask. While using a reusable mask is cheaper in the long run, there are times when disposable masks are more convenient.
It's also worth noting that reusable masks tend to have a much longer lifespan. Where most disposable masks are rated only for 8 hours, reusable masks often undergo testing for tens or hundreds of hours. Some even undergo wash testing to test their filtration efficacy after washing cycles.
I always like to have both a reusable mask and a few disposable masks on hand. Reusable masks are great for general trips outdoors when air pollution is my primary concern. However, disposable masks are helpful when I know I will be using a lot of public transport. After being in contact with so many people, it's easy to dispose of potentially contaminated masks.
There are also semi-reusable masks such as the AirPop Light SE. These masks can be worn for around 40 hours each compared to the 8-hour lifespan of most respirators. This strikes an outstanding balance between affordability and hygiene. If the mask gets dirty, replacing it is easy. At the same time, you can rest assured that it will provide high filtration over its lifespan.
To wrap up this section, a reusable mask is almost always the better choice for air pollution. They're cheaper, maintain more filtration efficacy and are similarly capable. However, when it comes to situations in which masks need to be cleaned or 'cycled', it's worth either getting multiple reusable masks (so that one can be worn while the other(s) are being washed) or having disposable masks to fill the gaps.
2) What Is the Mask’s Lifespan?
This aspect is critical to consider when purchasing a reusable mask. Not all masks have equal lifespans - quite the opposite! Some masks are designed to filter for a single-use (up to 8 hours), while others are claimed to filter for 300 hours. There is a huge difference between the intended lifespan of masks.
For this reason, it's always important to check the manufacturer's instructions. What is the mask or filter's intended lifespan in days or hours? The answer to this question will also determine the long-term cost. More on that soon, though!
There is another crucial factor to consider regarding the lifespan of reusable pollution masks. That is the filter system used in the mask - is the filter built into the mask, or does the mask utilise user-replaceable filters?
Masks with built-in filters are usually reusable for a few months (150+ hours of wear), but they have a finite lifespan. Over time, the filtration efficacy of the filter will degrade, and the whole mask will need to be replaced. Many of these devices can also not be washed or should only be washed a couple of times at most. Otherwise, they begin to lose their filtration efficacy.
Other masks instead opt for a user-replaceable filter. This means that users can replace the filter whenever needed without purchasing a new mask. If you look after the mask, it can last for years. This makes most masks with replaceable filters cheaper in the long run.
Therefore, it's always important to consider the lifespan of a mask before purchasing it. Further, check whether or not the mask uses a built-in or user-replaceable filter. While both will have longer lifespans than disposable masks, masks with replaceable filters can last indefinitely provided they are taken care of.
3) What Is the Long-Term Cost?
That leads us straight to the third point - the long term price of a mask. Before buying a mask, it’s important to calculate precisely how much the device will cost you over the long run. This can be done by finding the price of the mask, the price of replacement filters, the number of filters included, and the estimated lifespan of each filter.
For example, let’s compare the long term price of a reusable mask with a replaceable filter, the AirPop Active, a reusable mask with a built-in filter, the AirPop Light SE, and a standard one-use disposable N95 device.
The filter used on AirPop masks is designed to last for 40-120 hours depending on a range of variables including local air quality and humidity. Therefore, we chose the middle-ground of 80 hours for this comparison.
|Device||Price (initial)||Lifespan||Price per hour|
|AirPop Original||$50 (incl. 4 filters)||40-120 hours||0.16 cents|
|AirPop Light SE||$25 (incl. 4 masks)||80 hours||0.08 cents|
|Generic N95/KN95||$1.50 per mask||8 hours||0.19 cents|
- Mask = $50 (includes 4 filters). Lifespan = 40-120 hours. Replaceable filters = $20 (4x). Price per hour = 0.06 cents (long term, average lifespan of 80 hours). Price per hour for first 320 hours = 0.16 cents.
Since the mask includes four filters, assuming the mask price is $30.
AirPop Light SE
- 4 masks = $24.99. Lifespan = (average) 80 hours. Price per hour = 0.08 cents
- 20 masks = $90. Lifespan = (average) 80 hours. Price per hour = 0.06 cents
Typical N95 Respirator
- The average price is about $1.50 per mask. Lifespan = one-use, 8 hours. Price per hour = 0.19 cents.
As you can see, both a semi-reusable mask such as the Light SE and a fully reusable mask such as the AirPop Original come in much cheaper in the long run. While these price differences may not seem that different over a shorter period, the savings can be huge over a few years.
Also worth noting is that there are other costs associated with the high usage of masks. One that has become particularly obvious recently is the environmental cost. Reusable masks considerably cut down on the amount of waste due to their longer lifespans and decreased material (in the case of masks that utilise replaceable filters).
Therefore, when considering which mask to purchase, it’s always worth considering the cost. Not just the upfront cost, but also the ongoing costs - if you’ll be using a mask for a long time to come, you don’t want to be spending more than you need to!
4) Is the Sizing Right?
This point may sound obvious, but it's essential to consider. Sizing in masks can be extremely confusing! Not only because most of us don't know our own facial dimensions, but also because it seems that every brand has its own sizing system. A large mask from one manufacturer might be equivalent to a small from another!
Therefore, no matter how many masks you may have purchased, always make sure to double-check the sizing guide. This will allow you to confirm that you are buying an adequate size and are getting the best fit.
To find what mask size is best for you, there are two dimensions that you will need. The first is the distance from the middle of one ear to the other (going over your nose). Secondly is the distance from the bridge of your nose to the bottom of your chin.
Once you have these dimensions, you can compare them against the sizing guide for the mask that you are interested in. Hopefully, there will be a similar size. If no size closely fits your facial measurements, it's likely worth looking elsewhere.
AirPop has this practical diagram/video sizing guide that will allow you to find the perfectly fitting mask. Make sure to read the manual and double-check your own measurements before purchasing a mask.
5) What Fitting Mechanisms Does the Mask Use?
While there is no way to determine with certainty if a mask will fit without trying it on, there are factors that you can pay attention to before buying a mask. These will help you ascertain if a mask is likely to fit well. Combined with the sizing information above, you should get a good indication of whether a mask will fit. Here’s what to look for:
Nose Piece - there are two common leakage points on masks. The first is on the bottom of the mask, along the chin. The second is around the bridge of the nose. The latter is especially important because any glasses-wearer will know how frustrating fogged-up glasses can be.
Before purchasing a mask, consider what nosepiece the device uses. Nearly all masks will use wire to mould around the nose, but how long is this wire? Is there also a strip of memory foam to help prevent leaks? Or, does the mask use a silicone seal designed to mould the wearer’s face?
While each mask will differ, those relying solely on wire nosepieces will usually provide a less secure seal than those depending on memory foam or a silicone seal. A more extended wire nosepiece also tends to lead to a better fit than a shorter one.
Earloops - Not all masks use earloops, but the majority do. Therefore, it’s essential to look into how they work. Are they adjustable? If they’re not, you will likely need to create your own fit, either by tying a knot in the earloop or by adding your own bead for adjustment.
If a mask does have adjustable earloops, see if you can find a picture of them. Does the bead/adjustment device have enough strength to retain its position even after being worn for an extended period? Or, does it look like it will quickly lose its place, and the mask will gradually loosen while being worn?
Additional fitting elements - while almost every mask will have a nosepiece and earloops, many masks have more custom fitting mechanisms. For example, some masks have adjustable chin straps, others have chin-wraps, and AirPop introduces a full silicone seal on the mask's interior.
These added elements can lead to a mask that fits better and provides more protection. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how well it will fit without trying a mask. However, checking these fitting elements along with the sizing of a mask should provide a good indication as to whether it will fit you.
6) Is the Mask Comfortable?
The next factor that needs to be considered is one that I think many people overlook. I'm talking about comfort. While it's easy to get hung up on the filtration and fit of a mask, comfort should never be overlooked - if a mask isn't comfortable, you likely won't even end up wearing it!
As with fit, it's hard to determine the comfort of a mask before buying it. However, there are some factors that we can consider to get a hint as to whether a mask will be comfortable or not.
Mask material - the first factor to consider before buying a mask is the material that the device itself is made out of. Reusable masks can be made from merino wool and linen to 3D printed plastics. These materials all have different breathability and allow for varying amounts of airflow.
Filters using less breathable material will have higher breathing resistance and have more extreme microclimates within the mask. This means that it's likely that the inside of the mask will become warm and humid.
Filter material - as with the mask's material, the filter material is also vital to comfort. Typically, masks will use a melt-blown filter similar to those on N95 and KN95 respirators. These can vary a lot in breathability depending on the manufacturing process.
Other filters that you might come across are microfibre (non melt-blown), nanofibre and wool. It's hard to make a blanket statement as each filter is substantially different, but it is worth seeing if the product advertises breathability for its filter.
Earloops - some masks may use headbands, but most masks rely on the more convenient earloop design. Since the most common discomfort with masks is pain behind the ears, caused by too tight or thin earloops, it's essential to keep this factor in mind when buying a mask.
Look for masks with adjustable earloops, as these fit better and allow for flexibility when it comes to the tightness of the device. On top of this, try to find masks that use softer and thicker earloops. These will disperse pressure behind the ears and reduce the pain that is often encountered after a few hours of wearing a mask.
Weight - weight is another factor worth considering when judging the comfort of a mask. A heavier mask will cause more strain on your ears and is also likely to be made from thicker material which will hold heat and humidity inside the mask. Not all heavier masks will be uncomfortable, but weight is worth considering.
7) Does the Mask Have a Valve?
Although valves in masks are directly related to comfort, they deserve an extra entry as valves introduce a few implications.
Exhalation valves are usually round pieces of plastic added to a mask's shell. For many industrial and consumer applications, masks are only required to filter inhaled air. Valves do just this - they allow for the filtration of inhaled air while allowing exhaled air to exit the mask without being filtered. This reduces exhalation resistance and often makes the mask more comfortable to wear.
On the other hand, masks with no valve will filter air going both ways. This is ideal for situations where two-stage filtration is essential, such as with the ongoing pandemic. The downside of this is that there can be increased exhalation resistance and higher humidity and temperature inside the mask chamber.
When it comes to preventing the spread of viruses, most filtration takes place on respiratory particles expelled by the wearer. Unfortunately, valves don't filter these expelled particles, allowing them to enter atmospheric air.
Therefore, it's essential to consider whether or not you need a mask with a valve. Generally, masks with valves are helpful for air pollution protection. In other cases, valve-less masks are a safer bet. This is especially true as many countries have banned masks with valves over the past two years.
It is also worth noting that while valves are designed to decrease exhalation resistance, and the extremity of the microclimate within a mask, a device utilising a more breathable filter media can often outperform even dual-valve masks.
8) What Certifications (Ratings) Does the Mask Have?
One of the most important aspects of any mask is its rating, certifications, and lab testing. Ratings vary, but the most common are N95/N99/N100, KN95, KF94, P2, and FFP2/FFP3. These ratings are given by different test bodies located around the world.
On top of these certifications, there are also labs worldwide that carry out filtration and fit testing on respirators and filters. While it’s easy to make claims about a device’s filtration, it’s essential to look at the detailed information. Instead of listening to claims about how a mask ‘filters 99% of particles’, look into the actual data behind the claim.
Almost all mask companies will provide these lab test certificates either online or on request. While these certificates can seem complex, they also provide more detail about the exact conditions under which these results were measured.
Not all certifications are equal. Many will apply only to the filter, which is excellent in theory. However, these filtration results are found in perfect conditions with no leaks. In reality, the fit is also crucial. Some tests, such as the KN95 certification, require testing on a range of people to judge fit.
On top of this, many modern standards will test the reusability of a mask. As sustainability becomes more important, these standards become more relevant. Currently, standards such as ASTM F3502-21 and UNE 0065:2020 among others test masks for reusability after wash cycles. This is vital to consider to confirm that the device you are purchasing is able to maintain filtration even after being disinfected.
In 2021, many reusable masks hold either identical or similar certifications to their medical or industrial counterparts. There is no longer a need to compromise on filtration performance in order to have a comfortable daily mask.
While it’s hard to mention every testing standard and certification in this article (there are a lot of them!), the key point to take away from this is to look at the proof behind claims. See precisely which test conditions were used and how the mask or filter performed under them. Further, make sure to pay attention to the reusability and wash-cycle testing as these will indicate the longevity of a mask.
AirPop masks have undergone extensive testing from laboratories all around the globe. To find all of the certifications and lab results, please visit our helpdesk page and navigate to the mask you want to see information about.
9) Do You Like the Design?
I put this point at the end of the article because it’s less important but still relevant. After all, when it comes to masks, protection is first. However, with masks being a daily necessity for many people, why not have fun with them? In 2022 having a capable mask and having a stylish mask aren’t mutually exclusive.
Most manufacturers these days provide masks in various colours and designs - some will even have graphics printed on them. While these aren’t to everyone’s tastes, there is sure to be something to suit everyone.
If you’re looking for something that always looks good and that can match any outfit, consider a mask with a muted colour. Greys, browns, black and white masks can be matched with almost any style and are always in. However, brighter masks can make a statement.
In the end, the choice is yours. Nevertheless, if you’re going to be wearing a mask every day, it’s worth buying one that you like the look of. So have some fun, experiment, and see what looks best!
10) Does the Mask Have Positive Reviews?
Last but not least, we always recommend checking the reviews of a product first. These reviews can be found all over the internet - simply by Googling ‘x mask reviews’, by visiting an online shopping mall that stocks the products, or by visiting the brand’s website. There are always many opinions and experiences on the internet, and they are worth reading about before investing in a potentially pricy mask.
Reviews are beneficial when it comes to masks because everyone has a different face and masks fit everyone differently. In one review, a mask may fit perfectly while it doesn’t fully seal in the next. Therefore, reviews can be added together to give a general overview of how a mask performs based on an aggregation of experiences.
A further tip that I recommend is to read some of the worst reviews. These are usually the 1-star reviews on a website. While some of these reviews are likely overly angry or about rare device faults, there can also be genuine issues mentioned. Make sure to consider both the best and worst reviews to learn exactly what to expect from the device before purchasing it.