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By now you probably own a few masks. So do I! Masks are not all created equal and I thought I would share what I have found to be the best masks for different purposes.
This article in the New York Times is very well written and goes into some of the important differences between all the masks.
There are three classes of masks:
N95 or KN95 Respirators
Surgical masks or Surgical style masks
N95 and KN95
The best mask period is an N95 or KN95 mask. These are respirators and serve an important function. They protect you from inhaling particles by filtering them out. The 95 means they filter 95% of the medium particles such as those that can carry the coronavirus.
Early on in the pandemic, we were advised not to buy or use N95 masks which lead to a lot of the market being flooded with KN95 masks that generally come from China and are certified there. Technically they do the same thing but there are many form factors available. I personally find most around the ear N95 and KN95 masks to be unbearable to wear.
You can read about what these numbers mean and the various certifications here.
3M is probably one of the most popular brands for N95 masks and they make them for different purposes. They have products that are designed for the medical industry and products for other industries (such as painting). If you want to geek out here is a PDF comparing all of the 3M products.
While you won’t find any 3M N95 masks on Amazon you will find TONs of KN95 masks. You can get the 3M 9205+ on eBay.
My favorite mask in this category is the 3M Aura 9205+. It has a very clever design that folds flat and wears very comfortable. This is not the same as the mask designed for health care workers - that is the 3M Aura 1870+. So if you can find and purchase the 9205+ you will know it’s designated for people like you and me to purchase.
One of the more popular disposable options is the imported KN95 mask, considered the Chinese-made equivalent to the N95. Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University who co-authored a study on the efficiency of various mask materials, says that, while the certification processes for KN95 and N95 masks are “nearly identical,” many of the KN95 masks on the market today are counterfeit. There’s no way for you to tell an authentic mask from a fake, but fortunately Cui and his lab have found that even counterfeit KN95 masks can have a filtration efficiency of 75 to 80 percent. (Cui’s company, 4C Air, sells a KN95 mask that his research has shown can filter 95 percent of small particles.)
There are also many non-disposable options too.
Honeywell now makes reusable masks with filtration that is on part with N95 masks.
Envo Mask makes a mask that has N95 inserts. This is a pretty different looking mask, but I have one and can say it’s very comfortable - especially for a long flight. For glasses wearers, this is also non-fogging. There is a company also making a kids version.
note - you should not get a mask with an exhalation valve like the one pictured below. This is bad as it pushes out your air to the environment and is as if you are wearing no mask - it offers no protection to those around you. Many masks like the Envo mask come with a plug to seal the valve hole.
Surgical Style Masks
Surgical masks are made from three-layers - a melt-blown polymer such as polypropylene that is placed in between two layers of non-woven fabric. The melt-blown material acts as the filter. It’s important that your mask has this layer or it’s no better than a piece of cloth.
Surgical style masks are very easy to find and come in various colors. Make sure the one you get has this layer.
You don’t need to get an actual surgical mask as those are typically in the supply chain for PPE equipment but plenty of companies are making non-certified surgical style masks.
This mask from Amazon is made in the USA and is three-layer.
Evolvetogether has many surgical style masks for kids and adults in many different colors.
There is at least one non-disposable face mask that approximates the function of a surgical mask and that is the SST Face Mask from Killspencer. This made in the USA mask has 4 high quality, heavy grade layers of Meltblown and Spunbond polypropylene material. I have this mask and love it. It comes in three sizes and can be washed and re-used. I use this as my “go-to” mask.
Every other mask is going to be better than no mask but will offer you very little protection. So it matters little what you wear here as long as you are wearing something. If I were to wear a mask in this category it would be the Outlier 004 Ultrasuede Mask. It’s got a nifty adjustment technique, is an around the face mask (vs around the ear which I hate), and is made of ultra-suede which is both comfortable and a good filter since it’s a non-woven fabric.
Outdoor Research makes some great re-usable masks for athletic use such as skiing. I picked up a few of these for the family.
When to wear different masks?
Flying or in a closed environment
Always wear an N95 or KN95 mask as this protects you from mask wearers and non-mask wearers.
If you work in an airport, airplane, school, grocery store - basically any place where you need protection for yourself - this is the best option.
I would recommend wearing a surgical style mask as much as possible as they offer the next best level of protection. N95 masks are expensive, uncomfortable, and hard to find. Surgical style masks are plentiful, comfortable, and offer great protection.
The next best option is one of the re-usable masks linked to above. Then after that whatever cloth mask you like.
Our son goes to school in a disposable surgical style mask. We all wear N95 masks on planes and risky environments we cannot avoid. We wear surgical style masks for working out or instances where we are in closer contact with people and then one of the masks above or cloth for other situations.