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We tried and tested 7 face masks (so you don’t have to)

While no mask can make you invincible, fabric, fit and function can vastly impact on how effective a face mask really is

To mask or not to mask? That has seemingly been one of many pandemic related questions debated by leaders in both the UK and the US over the past few months. And if we are to wear one, which are the best protective face masks to buy?

The World Health Organisation issued new guidelines on 5 June recommending that governments ask citizens to wear face coverings in public areas, while areas of the world affected by the 2003 SARS outbreak in particular were quick to adopt face mask wearing as standard. Just ten countries officially advocated wearing a face mask in public at the outset of global coronavirus lockdowns in March – now over 130 countries and 20 US states and counting require face coverings to be worn in situations when social distancing is difficult. Young children and those with certain medical conditions that make wearing a mask challenging are exempt. 

If you’re wondering where it’s necessary to mask up, pharmacist Parvinder Sagoo has quite the checklist:

“Wearing a mask is most important in areas that are inside, closed off or where you will be in close proximity to others. This is hospitals, pharmacies, shops, cafés, public transport, taxis, cinemas, salons, nail bars, skin clinics, spas and other confined spaces where you could put yourself and others at risk.”

Add to this the fact that masks are now mandatory in many areas of the UK in shops, supermarkets and on public transport, with fines of up to £100 issued to those who fail to comply, and you’re going to need to be grabbing a mask alongside your wallet and keys on the regular. Mandates on face masks differ in the US from state to state but you’re looking at a fine of up to $5000 or a year in prison if you skip the face covering in Hawaii, for one. Better safe than sorry on every count.  

While no mask can make you invincible, fabric, fit and function can vastly impact on how effective a face mask really is. Surgical masks and respirators (the tightly sealed ‘filtration’ masks that need to be fit tested to the wearer) are in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare staff and key workers – if you find a mask described as ‘medical’, don’t buy it. So, what should we buy instead? 

At the bottom of the pile are paper masks according to Sagoo:

“The flimsy blue paper masks you see do act to protect immediate respiratory droplets but when you look closely you can see that they are not ideal for ensuring complete protection as they are rectangular in size and have gaps and gaping holes at the side and by the nose.

“These types of masks are cheap and while they do offer some protection they’re not really suitable for stopping the transmission of virus particles.”

What’s more, these disposable masks contribute significantly to landfill waste, so unless you’re required to wear them for work it’s better to opt for a reusable face mask. If you’re questioning whether a swathe of Liberty or leopard print fabric stands up to pathogenic invaders as well as sartorial scrutiny, Dr Aragona Giuseppe, GP and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor, affirms that basic cloth masks are indeed effective, but she has some pointers before you bulk buy. 

Like an onion or well-developed personality, your mask needs layers – ideally three in line with many government guidelines. Dr Giuseppe also advises opting for a mask “with a filter in order to filtrate bacteria and dust that can become trapped in the mask”. Many are sold with filters but you can buy them separately and slip them between the layers of your mask for cleaner airflow. 

As for fabric, cotton is Dr Giuseppe’s day to day choice as it is breathable and soft against the skin. (If they aren’t, they can cause skin irritation and potential acne as shown in our article Behind the Mask and can withstand being washed at high temperatures – you’ll need to wash your mask at a temperature of “at least 60ºC/ 140ºF in order destroy coronavirus particles that could potentially cause infection.” 

Synthetic materials are generally less effective than natural fabrics in terms of providing a barrier for virus particles, plus they tend to shrink or become misshapen when washed at high temperatures.    

Speaking of shape, Dr Giuseppe stresses that your mask should be snug to keep out the bugs:

“To ensure full protection your mask needs to be large enough to cover both your mouth and nose comfortably. It needs to be tight enough around your face that there are no gaps where potential particles could enter or leave but not so tight that it is sore on the skin.”

It seems that finding the right mask is quite the Goldilocks endeavour, which is why we’ve road tested a variety of styles, materials and fits to see what sticks. 

The ‘won’t fog up your glasses’ one

ISKO Vital+ masks, £16.11 for five, have a bendable nose clip that helps to seal the mask to your face more effectively, minimising ‘leaks’ and helping to prevent glasses from steaming up. Made from organic cotton interweaved with an antimicrobial polymer to keep bacteria and odour at bay, the four-layered mask is available in three sizes (in hindsight I should have gone for a ‘small’) and lasts for up to 30 washes. The comfy ear elastics are coated in soft cotton, so there’s no behind the ear chafing. 

Writer Anna Lao-Kaim in her Isko mask
Writer Anna Lao-Kaim in her Isko mask
The hot weather one 

Wearing face masks while it’s muggy is especially unpleasant: enter the light but mighty Ally mask, £15. The mask is KN95 accredited, meaning that it has been proven to block up to 95% of airborne particles, yet its ‘high-density’ four layered fabric feels like one of the lightest of the bunch. It has a ‘wipe clean’ outer layer that’s easy to sluice with alcohol spray or hand sanitizer on the go and it can be washed at temperatures up to 80ºC/180ºF. The ergonomic fit is ideal for ‘ski jump’ noses such as mine too. 

Even better, buy the HEROES x Ally mask and all profits will be donated to the HEROES charity, a support lifeline founded by NHS workers, for NHS workers. Each regular mask purchased also includes a £2 donation to HEROES. 

The linen one 

On the subject of accommodating your schnoz, Swedish brand Plümo quite literally excels in this area – the concertinaed shape is less claustrophobic than ‘flat’ face masks. The four layered hardy organic linen mask, £10, is naturally antibacterial and this one was the most breathable of them all. Most likely for this reason I also found it to be the most comfortable to wear for long periods of time. If you choose to add one to your bulging face mask wardrobe, the brand will donate to NHS Charities Together to support NHS staff and volunteers. 

The silk one 

Silk on the outside, cotton on the inside, The Fold’s Florence face mask is on the minimalist side in terms of bells and whistles but you can easily add a filter to the pocket at the front to improve efficiency. Each pack, £30, contains a printed mask and a plain mask so you can adapt your face covering to your vibe on any given day, with £15 of each sale donated to Smart Works charity. 

best protective face masks the fold's florence face mask
The Fold’s Florence mask
The ‘underwear’ one 

A cursory Google search reveals that underwear manufacturers are leading the pack when it comes to face mask production. Given that so many of us have abandoned our bras during lockdown, it’s probably a shrewd move. 

High-end hosiery brand Falke’s fleece-lined face mask, £15 for two, has a nose clip for a secure fit and a moisture-repellent outer layer to keep your mask clean and dry (masks need to be replaced and washed as soon as they become damp to prevent bacteria multiplying). While there’s no pocket for a filter, the polypropylene material helps to repel external droplets while containing your own respiratory droplets. Just a heads up that the ear hooks are also pretty tight, which is a plus for securing the mask in place but you may need to give the old lugs a break if you’re wearing the mask for a long time. 

The picnic one 

Gingham may have been a key SS20 trend, but given that we’ve all been in our joggers since March it’s most likely getting the most significant exposure in the guise of facial coverings rather than couture. Bridesmaids dress brand Rewritten began making masks for friends and family at the beginning of the pandemic before pivoting their business to make non-medical grade masks for customers with all profits donated to NHS charities. 

A set of five cotton masks is £44 and should last you for months – they’re sturdy and wash well. Ties can be looped around your ears or secured to the back of your head to allow you to fit the mask more easily to your face shape, although I’d advise doing this before you leave the house for a faff-free experience. There’s no pocket for a filter but the material is tightly woven to minimise particle leakage. 

The sporty one

Californian cycling company Eliel has produced a line of “fun facade” masks – each design is unique and quirky. Made with breathable, moisture-wicking material that’s ideal for cycling or running, these masks will last you for as long as the pandemic does — and maybe for long after. The brand manufactures its face masks in a San Diego factory, donating masks to local healthcare providers too. 

With an excellently snug fit around the mouth and nose, you’ll feel comfortable yet still able to breathe as you climb those hills, whether you’re on your bike or on your feet. Even better, users can insert a dust filter between the layers of fabric for extra protection. Masks come in a pack of five or six too so you’ll never be caught short between washes, with a five pack starting at $60.

The Eliel face mask

And finally….

If you find wearing a mask very uncomfortable or claustrophobic then we can highly recommend adding a few drops of peppermint oil onto the filter to help you breathe easier or make the whole process a little more pleasant. Peppermint oil is energising but others we recommend are Vetiver for its calming properties, Rose for when you need to balance your emotions and Bergamot for a fresh, zesty scent that is often used in aromatherapy for helping with anxiety.

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