The 12 Best Face Masks & How to Wear and Wash Them, Per CDC/WHO Guidelines

It’s now been a full year since many Americans first entered lockdown for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we’ve hit milestones both grave and hopeful. Still, masking is as important as ever: the CDC recently released new studies to support guidance on double-masking and further pleas to continue to wear masks, even for those who have been vaccinated.

So as the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to live on and evolve, so too does our guide to choosing and maintaining face masks. The same basic science still applies, as do the recommendations from the WHO and CDC. Changes in manufacturing, product availability, and newer, CDC-backed solutions have informed our latest updates.

While there’s little debate as to the efficacy of masks at this point, public discourse is turning more towards “How much longer?” That answer isn’t yet clear, but making sure you have an effective mask is a crucial part of materializing, and perhaps for some, living in the “After Times.”

To that end, we’ve updated our guide with new insights on double-masking, the best options for double-masking effectively, links to legitimate and regularly-priced N95 masks, and some of the latest information on overall mask studies.

The short version

  • Kenneth Cole’s Woven Face Mask is our top pick for an everyday face mask. It encapsulates all the properties of a good cloth mask, according to the CDC and WHO. With multilayer construction, including a middle filter layer, machine washability in hot water, a nose wire, and adjustable ear loops, it checks all the boxes and achieves a decent fit.
  • If you don’t mind swapping out a replaceable filter, the Outdoor Research Face Mask Kit offers a superior fit—the best among all the masks we tested—with a longer, sturdier nose wire, and a shape that wraps around the chin and cheeks well to shore up gaps. It does require disposable filters if you’re wearing it alone, but the glove-like fit also makes it our top pick for use with double masking.
  • Meanwhile, Kitsbow’s Reusable Face Mask with HEPA Type Filter is a good alternative with many of the same strengths and two more size options but uses head straps instead of ear loops, which can be cumbersome in situations where you may remove your mask from time to time.
  • If you’re more concerned with a mask you can wear while exercising, the UA Sportsmask by Under Armour has all the layers you need, while still being breathable, comfortable, moisture-wicking, and structured well to avoid being sucked into your mouth during heavy breathing.
  • We’ve also found more homemade masks from Etsy which integrate the proper layers and can be helpful for small children and those hard of hearing, coming in kid-friendly designs and sporting clear windows for lip-reading, respectively.
  • You shouldn’t buy an N95 mask unless you’re a health care worker or at high risk of illness, but Fangtian’s N95 face masks are legitimately made, certified, and can be purchased for reasonable prices. Alternatively, there are KN95 masks that are tested to the same filtration standard of N95s and offered more widely and for less money. They can vary a bit in areas other than filtration, so we picked two with strong nose wires, more form-fitting construction and materials, and an option for those who may need bigger sizes.
  • Whether you’re using KN95s, disposable medical masks, or cloth face masks, cord locks or a mask-fitting brace can aid your fit and, ultimately, the filtration efficacy of your mask.

A note on the science of face masks

As a disease that has only come to our knowledge in the past year, the epidemiology and pathology of COVID-19 is still relatively nascent compared to pathogens we’ve had decades, or even centuries, to study. As much as we at Ars wish we could contribute to pushing this research further along, we don’t have the tools to research various masks and their impact on COVID-19 transmission as deeply as we (and the entire scientific community) would like to. As such, we’re reliant on the latest scientific discoveries and the long-understood knowledge that, generally, a proper mask limits pathogens from entering or escaping the respiratory system where they can be absorbed and expelled.

Even in the 14th century, we had an idea (albeit the wrong one) that disease spread could be limited through mask use. Just be glad you don't have to wear this.
Enlarge / Even in the 14th century, we had an idea (albeit the wrong one) that disease spread could be limited through mask use. Just be glad you don’t have to wear this.

Historically, the science behind mask-wearing has consistently pointed toward having a positive effect on slowing/preventing transmission of airborne diseases. For some of us, that’s all we needed to know when it came time for the public to adopt transmission-slowing measures during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But, at first, leading health organizations like the WHO and CDC both had trepidations about recommending universal masking.

In summary, the reasoning against wearing them boiled down to an absence of evidence (though this is not the evidence of absence, as mask efficacy against COVID-19’s community spread has yet to be studied thoroughly), supply shortages for health care workers, and the fear of masks providing a false sense of security to the detriment of the public’s adherence to other important aspects of reducing transmission, like social distancing, limiting gatherings, and diligent hand-washing.

By now, with the exception of maintaining health care workers’ supplies, the scientific community largely maintains that the effect of wearing a mask in public overcomes these hesitations and is a crucial component to slowing and—hopefully, one day—eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic. As for the only remaining concern, shortages for health care workers, that’s where the use of cloth masks and N95 equivalents comes in.

Shouldn’t this list just be N95s?

N95 Respirators are best reserved for healthcare workers and those at the highest risk for serious illness.
Enlarge / N95 Respirators are best reserved for healthcare workers and those at the highest risk for serious illness.

Not exactly.

This is due in large part to the fact that we’re facing a global shortage of such PPE for healthcare professionals who need N95 masks to treat patients and fight this pandemic safely. There are some exceptions detailed in WHO mask guidance, explaining that if you have COVID-19, COVID-19 symptoms, are caring for someone who may be infected, or are among the vulnerable population (aged ≥ 60 years, people with underlying comorbidities, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, or immunosuppression) then a medical mask, such as an N95 or N99, is the safest bet to protect yourself from the virus or contain the spread if you have it. If you’re unable to get a hold of these, as is likely in times of shortages and crises like we’re currently facing, emergency-approved international N95 equivalents like the KN95 are the next best thing.

Similarly, if you’re in a living space with or are caring for someone who has or may potentially have COVID-19, these medical masks are the only proper equipment. Concurrent use of a cleanable face shield is highly advisable when in close contact with a patient to increase your safety and prolong the effectiveness and integrity of your mask. Placing a disposable surgical mask over the outside of the N95 while wearing it can also help preserve it. Social distancing and frequent hand-washing are also to be employed. For more information on caring for COVID-19 patients, check out the CDC’s guidance.

If you’re not in one of these situations, properly specified non-medical masks, along with social distancing, should do the trick. In this case, “the trick” is protection and source control—limiting your exposure to the virus and ability to spread it. Ultimately, the potential for reaching a critical amount of exposure, or viral load, needed to infect you (or for you to infect others) is greatly reduced by keeping at least six feet of distance from others, wearing a face covering, and avoiding poorly ventilated indoor environments. Early data suggests that this remains true with newly emerging, more virulent variants of the virus.

For healthy individuals in this context, cloth masks that don’t meet N95 filtration standards appear to be effective in protecting people during their day-to-day, necessary tasks. You can read more about these studies in our deep dive on mask data and the CDC’s latest studies on double-masking (which we also address later) with cloth and disposable medical procedure masks.

How to choose a mask

Finding a mask that meets CDC/WHO guidelines ought to be easier.
Enlarge / Finding a mask that meets CDC/WHO guidelines ought to be easier.

Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography / Getty

When shopping for a good cloth mask, there are a few dos and don’ts to keep in mind, put forth by the WHO and CDC. Here’s the summary.

DO

  • Look for masks with at least three layers as outlined below—the more the better.
    • An innermost layer made of hydrophilic (water-absorbing) material (cotton or cotton blends).
    • The outermost layer made of hydrophobic (water-repelling) material (polypropylene, polyester, or their blends).
    • A hydrophobic middle layer of synthetic non-woven material such as polypropylene or another cotton layer which may enhance filtration or retain droplets.
  • Ensure a good fit with a tight seal. Form-fitting wires in the nose bridge are especially helpful.
  • Make sure it fits snugly but comfortably against the sides of the face and completely covers the nose and mouth.
  • Choose masks secured with ties or ear loops.
  • Make sure it allows for breathing without restriction.
  • Select materials that can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

DO NOT

  • Don’t get valved masks. They put others at risk.
  • Don’t use fabrics coated in wax or other similar compounds on any layer of the mask as these can block the mask’s pores for airflow, creating more air pass-through around the sides of the mask.
  • Don’t get masks made of stretchable fabrics as these increase pore size as they stretch.
  • Don’t use neck gaiters for the following reasons:
    • They’re typically made of stretchable fabric.
    • Often they don’t have the proper number or types of layers.
    • It’s hard to keep track of where the front is to avoid touching it.

Sticking to these guidelines will help to ensure efficacy, reusability, and safety for yourself and others.

Mask hygiene: How to wear a face mask (and take it off)

Putting on, or donning, a clean mask is a relatively simple process. First, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, then, holding the ties or ear loops, put the mask on your face and ensure a good seal around the nose bridge, cheeks, chin, and sides of your face.

While you’re wearing the mask do not touch the front of it, as there can be viral particles on the surface. By now you’ve likely heard not to touch your face (or nose, mouth, and eyes) to avoid potential infection via fomite transmission of the virus, caused by touching a surface that may be contaminated with it and introducing it to your body. While wearing your mask, the front of it especially should be treated as a potential fomite (source of transmission), so ensure proper fitment when putting it on initially to avoid having to touch it while wearing.

You should always avoid touching the front of your mask as there can be viral particles lying in wait.
Enlarge / You should always avoid touching the front of your mask as there can be viral particles lying in wait.

CDC

This continues when you’re taking off the mask, or “doffing” it, as well. Grasp only by the ear loops or ties, undo them, and remove the mask downward off your face, taking care to avoid contact with the front of the mask. Immediately place your mask in the wash after wearing; it’s fine to put it with other high-temperature washable clothing (more on this in the next section). If you’re unable to launder the mask immediately, make sure to fold it inward so the inner part (where your face was touching) is facing out and place it in a single disposable bag until it can be washed. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds directly after doffing the mask.

You should not be donning and doffing your mask multiple times throughout one wear. Masks should be washed or sanitized after every use. For this reason, it’s helpful to have multiple masks to suit your wearing habits so you’re never wearing a contaminated mask. Any masks exposed to outside liquids or other damage should be taken off and discarded as soon as it’s safe to do so. If the layers of fabric look noticeably worn out or you notice any holes forming, discard the mask.

To summarize:

  • Before putting on your mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Secure the mask on your face and ensure a snug, breathable fit with the best seal possible.
  • Do not touch the front of the mask while wearing it or take it on and off multiple times throughout wearing.
  • Take the mask off by the ties or ear loops and put it directly in the wash.
  • OR place it in a disposable bag until it can be laundered.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after taking off and laundering/storing your mask.
Please, don't treat your mask like this.
Enlarge / Please, don’t treat your mask like this.

CDC

How to double mask

According to a recent CDC study, doubling up a disposable medical procedure mask with a cloth one can lower exposure to particles sized 0.1–7 μm (the typical range of SARS-CoV-2 particles) by about 83% when the exposure source is unmasked, and 96% when the exposer and subject are both masked. When the subject was wearing a single cloth or disposable masks alone, results showed the face coverings blocking only around 50% for each. Similarly, tucking and knotting a single disposable mask in the technique demonstrated by the CDC reduced the source’s emission of particles by 77% in a simulated cough, and protected a wearer from an unmasked source at about 65% efficacy.

The obvious takeaway here is that whether you’re the source of viral particles of the potential recipient, double masking combined with knotting and tucking appears highly effective for source control and exposure—particularly when both subjects are double-masked.

Pulling off double-masking is relatively easy, but a key aspect of this is tying knots in the disposable mask’s earloops (layer one) and tucking in the folds on the side to achieve a better seal. The trick here is to make sure you tie the knot as close to the mask piece as possible, to ensure the folds stay tightly tucked when wearing. To do this, follow the steps below.

  1. Wrap an earloop around your finger and pull the strap through under itself on your finger.
  2. Slide the knot all the way down to the fabric of the mask before removing your finger and tightening.
  3. Once you’ve done this on both sides, the mask will have raised creases on each side. Tuck these inward and press flat on the inside of the mask so this new pleat creates a flat seal.

Click through the slides below to see the steps and final product.

You can also achieve similar fit improvements with mask braces, or by pulling “a sleeve made of sheer nylon hosiery material” over the mask, according to the CDC. Once you have an improved fit from your disposable mask, affix it to your face and simply wear your best-fitting cloth mask over it. This not only enhances filtration, but an excellent-fitting cloth mask will help shore up any remaining gaps from the disposable mask underneath.

See our picks below for the masks we found best compatible with double-masking.

How to wash a face mask

Generally speaking, you should follow the washing or sanitizing instructions provided by the manufacturer of your mask. Do not put masks in microwaves, ovens, or attempt to use UV light to sanitize your mask. These are neither safe nor effective ways to kill all the germs on your mask. There are currently no consumer products on the market—UVC-emitting, heat-radiating, or otherwise—that can achieve sterilization of any type of mask.

If you don’t have laundering instructions for your mask, here are some general guidelines you can follow to wash your fabric mask safely and effectively.

Machine-washing

  • If machine-washable, include your mask with your regular laundry.
  • Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest water the materials permit.
  • Ideally, your mask’s materials should be able to withstand 140° Fahrenheit (60° Celsius).
  • Non-woven polypropylene may be washed at high temperatures, up to 140°C.
  • Masks composed of non-woven polypropylene spunbond fabric combined with cotton can tolerate high temperatures and can therefore typically be steamed or boiled.
  • Wash these masks delicately without too much friction, stretching, or wringing.
  • If hot water isn’t available, wash with soap or detergent and room-temperature water, followed by either boiling the mask for one minute (if made of the proper materials) or soaking it in 0.1 percent chlorine for one minute, then thoroughly rinsing with room-temperature water to avoid any toxic residual of chlorine.

Washing by hand

  • Use bleach containing 5.25 percent–8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. Don’t use bleach outside of this range or if it’s not specified.
  • Check the label to see if the bleach is intended for disinfection. Some bleach products, like those made for color-safe use, don’t meet the needs for disinfection.
  • Don’t mix bleach with other cleaners.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation during use.
  • Wear skin protection and consider eye protection for potential splash hazards.
  • Prepare a bleach solution by mixing:
    • 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of 5.25 percent–8.25 percent bleach per gallon of room-temperature water
    • OR 4 teaspoons of 5.25 percent–8.25 percent bleach per quart of room-temperature water
  • Soak the mask in the bleach solution for 5 minutes.
  • Pour the solution down the drain and rinse the mask thoroughly with cool or room-temperature water.

Drying

  • Use the dryer’s highest heat setting and leave the mask in until completely dry.
  • OR allow mask to air dry completely, placing in direct sunlight if possible.

After washes, make sure to inspect the mask for any signs of damage or developing holes. Like anything made of fabric, over time, it will start to degrade. Staying vigilant here will let you know when it’s time to get a new mask, especially if the manufacturer doesn’t state an estimated lifetime.

How to reuse disposable masks responsibly

Using CDC guidelines, you can implement a rotation policy to reuse N95 and equivalent masks safely.
Enlarge / Using CDC guidelines, you can implement a rotation policy to reuse N95 and equivalent masks safely.

MirageC / Getty Images

If you need to use N95 masks, or are buying equivalents, you can utilize CDC guidelines to implement a reuse strategy, but do not reuse disposable surgical masks. Designed for healthcare professionals in pandemic circumstances, the CDC says N95 masks can be used for up to five total uses, not to exceed eight hours collectively. Studies show that, after five uses, the integrity of the mask (its fit in particular) has degraded beyond a safe point for use. The same goes for anything above eight hours of total use. To ensure integrity, users should perform a seal check with each reuse.

If you’re following these procedures, then a rotation policy that allows for at least a week between each mask’s use, while storing them in individual breathable paper bags in the interim, is highly advisable. This helps to limit the potential for fomite transmission from a contaminated mask while extending the use of your N95 or equivalent.

Medical masks aren’t rated for duration of use, as they’re manufactured to be used once and disposed of when taken off. But the CDC indicates that following these guidelines, as well as those outlined above for taking off PPE safely, can allow users to safely utilize the same mask on multiple occasions before disposing.

Searching up methods for sanitizing disposable masks will bring some results, including FDA-approved (via emergency use authorizations) and CDC/NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-endorsed methods for health care facilities to do so, specifically in the face of crisis-level respirator shortages.

Crucially, only certain health care facilities have the proper tools to effectively use these minimally studied strategies for sanitizing disposable medical masks. Not only do these provisions require specific, lab-grade tools and fastidious application, but they were drawn up for use in the event of worst-case-scenario shortages, where health care workers must use such methods to provide themselves some level of protection against known infected individuals. Bottom line: don’t try to mimic this at home (or in public), because you can’t.

As we previously stated, there are currently no consumer products on the market—UVC-emitting, heat-radiating, microwaving, or otherwise—that can achieve sterilization of any type of mask. This gives washable cloth masks a huge advantage for the public.

Our top pick for an all-around cloth face mask

Kenneth Cole's cotton face masks have six layers with a multi-layer non-woven filter in the middle, checking all the boxes (and then some) for an excellent fabric mask.
Enlarge / Kenneth Cole’s cotton face masks have six layers with a multi-layer non-woven filter in the middle, checking all the boxes (and then some) for an excellent fabric mask.

Kenneth Cole

The best mask to limit COVID-19 transmission is the N95 respirator. When we say “top all-around pick,” this means it’s a great mask for the largest amount of people—healthy, low-risk individuals, in particular—with just about every feature noted in CDC/WHO guidelines.

Kenneth Cole Woven Face Mask product image

Kenneth Cole Woven Face Mask

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

What makes Kenneth Cole’s Woven Face Mask our top all-around recommendation is the rare characteristic of not only meeting but exceeding best practices from the CDC and WHO.

With six layers, composed of an inner cotton layer, four non-woven filtration layers, and a moisture-controlled antibacterial outer layer, these masks check all the boxes—some of them multiple times. The antimicrobial treatment on the outer layer shouldn’t be thought of as a SARS-CoV-2-killer, as such claims haven’t been tested, but rather an odor-killing measure for hygiene. This protection starts to diminish after about 30 washes at 140°F, but it’s unlikely you’ll experience much impact from this; you should be washing your mask regularly between wears anyway.

The masks are also machine-washable and have a nose clip to form-fit along your nose bridge and cheeks. Just note, Kenneth Cole sells a variety of masks that use the same basic design outlined above, but we’ve noticed varying fits and nose wire placements between different models. We best liked the rigidity, size, shape, nose wire placement, and adjustable straps afforded by their Woven Face Mask and Days of The Week Face Masks.

Kenneth Cole’s Woven and Days of The Week masks aren’t the only worthwhile masks—our next pick, for instance, has our favorite overall fit—but as far as cloth masks go, they’re exemplary representations of all the CDC and WHO’s requirements.

Great masks for double masking, use with replaceable filters, and glasses wearers

Outdoor Research masks feature disposable filters rated to filter out 95 percent of particles 0.1μm or bigger. COVID-19 viral particles can range from 0.4μm to less than 0.1μm.
Enlarge / Outdoor Research masks feature disposable filters rated to filter out 95 percent of particles 0.1μm or bigger. COVID-19 viral particles can range from 0.4μm to less than 0.1μm.

Outdoor Research

Outdoor Research Mask Kit product image

Outdoor Research Mask Kit

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Cloth masks designed for use with replaceable filters can be a better long-term solution for keeping out potentially harmful particles than relying on a mask that comes with a filter sewn in. As any breathable material begins to wear, effective filtration inevitably becomes affected. That wear is only exacerbated after multiple washes. While you should still remain vigilant for signs of wear on masks with replaceable filters, the ability to swap in brand-new filters with each use means you won’t have to question the integrity of your primary filtration layer. We have two main picks here, both with disposable filters, though the former has been tested to a higher filtration standard.

The Face Mask Kit by Outdoor Research is my personal favorite cloth mask, and it would be our top pick if it had a sewn-in filter for added convenience. The all-in-one nature of the Kenneth Cole mask makes it less of a hassle to maintain—and introduces less room for user error—but outside of that important caveat, Outdoor Research’s kit ticks all the same boxes, but better.

This mask has the best fit of all the options we’ve tried, including many that didn’t make this list for other reasons. The nose wire is exceptional: it has a sturdier, longer, and more rounded shape around the nose bridge—which helps to seal off the area properly and eliminate air leakage—compared to any mask we’ve tested, with just the right amount of malleability. This creates a comfortable and effective seal along the nose bridge and cheekbones, which is especially beneficial for glasses wearers.

The shape and structure of the Outdoor Research mask fit my face as well as any cloth mask I’ve tried, sealing my cheeks and chin snugly without excess airflow. It’s still a very breathable mask, though, even with the filter inserted. That filter spans the entire inside and uses the mask’s excellent fit to seal itself well on your face. Adjustable earloops bolster the comfortable fit. All of this makes the Outdoor Research Face Mask our top pick for use with double masking, with or without the disposable filter, and my personal go-to for cloth masks.

The filters are made of non-woven polypropylene, which is the same material used in medical masks. They meet the ASTM F2100-2019 standard for filtration efficiency, which means they’re rated to filter out greater than 95 percent of bacteria sized 0.1μm or bigger. SARS-CoV-2 viral particles can range in size from 0.5μm to less than 0.1μm. PM2.5 filters, which are commonly sold online for those sensitive to air pollution, won’t be as effective—they only filter out particles up to 2.5μm. The ASTM F2100-2019 standard also tests for differential pressure (the amount of air escaping or passing through the filter), flammability, and resistance to synthetic blood penetration. Outdoor Research’s filter meets or exceeds all but the test for blood penetration, which is made specifically to simulate a patient’s artery or vein bursting onto the mask—a highly unlikely situation for members of the general public to find themselves in.

The company says its filters can be used for around five to seven uses and are not to exceed 40 hours in a week, depending on humidity, face makeup, facial hair, and sweat. Per CDC guidelines on reusing medical masks, implementing a rotation policy where you use multiple masks with at least five days in between each wear could be a useful strategy to prolong the filters’ life span. This should be safer than washing the mask every day and transferring the partially used filter into the freshly laundered mask.

The Outdoor Research masks should always be worn with the filter inserted, as they’re only comprised of two layers of polyester otherwise. While this material is great for breathability and water repellence—two qualities the WHO recommends in a mask—its filtration efficacy alone won’t provide much protection without the filter. In combination with the disposable filter, though, the polyester’s low moisture retention and therefore higher electrostatic properties could help catch aerosols. Three filters come with the mask, and replacements can be bought in relatively inexpensive three packs.

Without the filter inserted, the face mask is machine-washable at high temperatures, which is another great plus, and it’s treated with HeiQ V-Block, which starts to diminish after about 30 washes. As we mentioned with other masks using this coating, this is mostly to prevent odor-causing microbes from thriving.

Another good option

Kitsbow Reusable Face Mask with HEPA Type Filter product image

Kitsbow Reusable Face Mask with HEPA Type Filter

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Kitsbow’s Reusable Face Mask with HEPA type filter has many of the same characteristics as Outdoor Research’s Face Mask Kit, but it uses elastic head straps as opposed to ear loops. The masks’ structure wraps around your cheeks and chin snugly, and the nose wire is sturdy but properly malleable and rounded for proper fit. It doesn’t give me the same tailor-made feeling I get wearing the Outdoor Research mask, and the nose wire isn’t as long and expansive over the cheeks, but it’s a design that’s still likely to create a good seal over multiple face types, including my own. Small, medium, and large options are available.
Two “HEPA Type” filters are included with the mask, but the company makes no claims as to their filtration. The New York Times’ Wirecutter did some lab testing of its own, however, and found the mask without the filter to have a higher filtration than their top pick without its filter. Adding in the filter should only bolster its efficacy, but since there’s little data on the filters themselves, we recommend using the Kitsbow mask (with or without the filter) as the outer layer in a double mask setup.

Its large surface area does well to cover any gaps in a disposable mask worn underneath, while also adding useful layers of filtration and protection on top.

A great mask for runners and exercisers

The UA Sportsmask features three layers of protection, water resistance, and breathability and a shape that keeps you from swallowing it with every gasp.
Enlarge / The UA Sportsmask features three layers of protection, water resistance, and breathability and a shape that keeps you from swallowing it with every gasp.

Under Armour

Under Armour Sportsmask product image

Under Armour Sportsmask

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

For those who need a comfortable, breathable, water- and sweat-resistant mask that doesn’t get sucked into your mouth during light or heavy exercise, the UA Sportsmask developed by Under Armour is the perfect fit.

Composed of three layers, the UA Sportsmask has a water-resistant polyester outer layer, a 100-percent polyurethane middle, and a soft, smooth inner layer made of 77-percent nylon and 23-percent spandex for wicking away moisture. It’s also machine-washable.

The structure of the mask also ensures that it sits raised off of your face and lips. Not only does that arrangement enhance breathability and maximize filtration efficacy, but it also provides excellent comfort by avoiding contact with sweaty skin, and it prevents the mask from being sucked in during heavy breathing. The form-fitting nose piece and stretchable ear-loops bolster these aspects while providing a snug fit for limiting air escape.

We’ve seen the UA Sportsmask frequently mentioned as a top pick in running and exercise communities, and with all its safety bases covered, it’s a great choice from a usability and efficacy standpoint as well.

Great masks for people hard of hearing

Deluxemask's windowed masks have three layers of filtration and avoid fog well.
Enlarge / Deluxemask’s windowed masks have three layers of filtration and avoid fog well.

Etsy/Deluxemask

A unique issue now facing people who are deaf or hard of hearing is the inability to lip-read somebody wearing a mask. Ideally, in such situations, it’s best to use handwritten communication, text (or speech-to-text features commonly found on phones and app stores), or ASL. Obviously, pulling down your mask to communicate is not safe, and face shields are not sufficient replacements for masks.

Adult and Kids Window Masks product image

Adult and Kids Window Masks

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Instead, the CDC recommends the use of clear masks if you’re regularly communicating with people who have hearing impairments or otherwise rely on facial expressions and cues regular masks hide. Masks made solely of clear materials like vinyl are next to useless, but a cloth mask with a small window of clear material can be a good option.

Generally, a mask without a clear window is optimal for situations when you don’t need a clear window—that’s because clear windows can create slightly more air pressure within the mask, contributing to more air escaping through the sides. However, if you’re a teacher or caretaker, for instance, who is required to communicate with people in need of such a solution for long hours, then a windowed mask is your best bet.

Windowed masks are still a relatively new market for mask makers, and as such, you won’t find many that meet CDC/WHO standards from big manufacturers or your typical marketplaces like Walmart and Amazon. Instead, it has become incumbent upon the craftier among us to help meet this need and do so up to spec. The CDC has released guidelines on how to create good masks at home, but, if you’re not particularly handy, your best bet may be to pick a mask that exceeds these standards and is made by someone with nimble fingers.

The Clear Window Mask by Deluxemask tops our picks thanks to its three-layer cotton design, built-in nose wire, and adjustable straps. We also love how its large window area doesn’t take up too much of the mask’s sides, where fabric is preferable. Machine-washing this or any other mask with a clear window is not recommended, but hand-washing is entirely suitable. Fog protection on a Clear Window Mask is solid, but, if that does begin to wane, you can rub a dab of dish soap, toothpaste, or anti-fog spray on the inside to help prevent fog.

There’s also a nice assortment of styles, from plain to, well, not-so-plain and a few in between. Adults get a one-size-fits-all solution, but another Etsy manufacturer we’ve found, Bonnie’s Crafty Creations, has a similarly great solution for kids with a ton of fun pattern options and all the same safety features we like from Deluxemask. Best of all, for those who use hearing aids, the majority of these masks come with elastic straps that fit around the head, rather than around the ears. These can be cut and fashioned into ear loops, if desired. Do note that some of the masks sold by Bonnie’s Crafty Creations offer the option to add vents—something we’ll stress again that you should avoid at all costs.

Great masks for kids

These masks have a variety of cotton materials with fun kids' patterns, from school subjects to superheroes. All have three layers with a filtration layer in the middle.

These masks have a variety of cotton materials with fun kids’ patterns, from school subjects to superheroes. All have three layers with a filtration layer in the middle.

Getty

Kids Face Mask by Bonnie’s Crafty Creations product image

Kids Face Mask by Bonnie’s Crafty Creations

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In looking for a mask for a little one, the same rules apply as for yourself. As such, you can choose from any of the above options, depending on your needs, and select a kids or smaller-sized option. Most manufacturers’ sizes in small/medium fit children, while the majority of adults should fit in large/extra-large offerings.

If you’d like something a bit more playful but still every bit as protective, we think one of the window-less options from Bonnie’s Crafty Creations is a solid bet. Styles range from superheroes to school subjects, and animated characters of all kinds, so self-expression shouldn’t be an issue here.

Even better, these masks have two layers of cotton sandwiching a third layer made of Pellon, a 100-percent polyester material. They also feature an adjustable nose wire and are machine-washable for ease of wear and maintenance. Some of these have options to add valves, but we can’t stress enough how important it is to avoid using such masks.

If you require N95 or equivalents

If you're among the vulnerable population, the WHO recommends you wear a medical mask, especially when social-distancing measures can't be achieved.
Enlarge / If you’re among the vulnerable population, the WHO recommends you wear a medical mask, especially when social-distancing measures can’t be achieved.

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Fangtian N95 Respirator Face Mask product image

Fangtian N95 Respirator Face Mask

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As we, the CDC, WHO, and most any health organization have stressed, medical-grade masks should be preserved for health care workers or high-risk individuals—especially as the virus continues to surge and shortages persist.

Healthcare professionals are still experiencing shortages in N95 masks, but the reasons for this go beyond simple supply and demand, involving supply chain quirks and government assistance, among other things. As former director of the CDC Tom Frieden told the Washington Post, it’s not entirely clear if buying N95 masks from retailers takes away supply from healthcare professionals, though he does caution that it might. With this in mind, it’s important to buy these masks sparingly and do so only if you’re in one of the high-risk populations or have certain medical conditions outlined by the CDC.

That said, finding legitimate, NIOSH-approved N95 masks at reasonable prices has proven quite tough. Thankfully, it appears Amazon is selling one particular manufacturer that has these certified credentials and a host of positive reviews from the public, including a number of healthcare professionals. Manufactured by Suzhou Fangtian Industries Co., Ltd, a NIOSH-approved manufacturer of N95 masks, Fangtian’s two N95s sold on Amazon are neither price-gouged nor do they appear to be counterfeit. Referencing both NIOSH’s own approved list of N95 manufacturers and models along with the FDA’s list of known counterfeits, these masks, the seller with 99% positive feedback on almost 80,000 lifetime reviews, are a solid bet for legitimate N95 masks.

Being N95 masks, both of the two Fangtian masks use head straps, as opposed to earloops, and have a good fit for medium to large face sizes. But, of the two, the FT-N040 model may better fit a wider array of face shapes and sizes, due to its more flexible, fold-flat construction, compared to the dome-shaped FT-N058 model. Furthermore, the FT-N040 has more surface area on both the sides and bottom of the mask, which helps it conform better to facial contours, thereby minimizing unfiltered airflow. Both have malleable yet sturdy nose wires, though, and achieve effective fits overall.

Again, as it bears repeating, please buy these responsibly, if necessary. Otherwise, the more prevalent and equally-effective KN95 is a more widely available choice, and often a more convenient one thanks to ear loops.

Great KN95 masks

KN95 Respirator Face Mask product image

KN95 Respirator Face Mask

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If you’d like N95-equivalent filtration and are having a hard time finding N95s, prefer not to chance depleting stores for healthcare professionals, or are simply a low-risk individual looking for top-level protection, KN95 masks are an excellent, more widely available option. KN95s from various manufacturers have been tested by NIOSH for filtration efficacy and, in the case of those found to have 95% or better filtration of particles sized 0.3 microns (the same filtration standard N95s meet), they’re FDA-approved for emergency use during the pandemic. The agency keeps a rather expansive list of brands it’s approved and you can verify how they’ve fared in cursory filtration tests performed by NIOSH, to ensure quality and legitimacy.
We have two brands on our list: one that should fit best for small- and medium-sized users, Yiwu Henghao’s KN95, and another that’s good for medium to large face types, made by Arun. If you’re somewhere in the middle, we’d recommend our small/medium pick as it’s less likely to have air escape with most face types.

We picked these two brands in particular for having stronger nose wires than most KN95s on the market, as well as a better fit and seal on the face. In our testing, we often observed that sewn-in nose wires, as opposed to KN95s with the metal exposed, typically were weaker than their visually-evident counterparts. Not only do these two brands have a stronger nose wire, but the shape and less rigid construction of the mask itself allows for a better seal than most other KN95s we’ve tried. Both of these are on the FDA’s approved list of manufacturers and meet the minimum 95% particle filtration standard necessary to attain this white-listing.

One thing to quickly note about the seller for the Henghao masks: you must select “Henghao” from the drop-down next to “package size” when purchasing, as there are a few other brands for sale on there, as well. You can also use the FDA’s emergency-approved respirator list as a source to find other brands worth buying, at least as it relates to their filtration efficacy alone. But, in looking for those, you’ll need to be aware of potential counterfeits.

Protecting yourself against counterfeits

When shopping for medical masks like these, the main concern is always avoiding counterfeits. As mentioned, the FDA has a list of known counterfeits, but the keyword there is “known.” Outside of this list, there are some common sense precautions you can take to help ensure a legitimate and safe purchase if you’re attempting to find some on your own.
To name a few:

  1. Don’t ever buy through links in text messages, emails, social media posts, etc.
  2. Look at what else the site has to offer. Does it make sense? Does the website name make sense?
    • The same should be considered with sellers on Amazon; check the seller’s page for reviews and other products for sale.
  3. Use a credit card or PayPal to make purchases. Credit cards have some of the stronger US laws to protect against fraud, while PayPal has similarly solid buyer protections to keep you from having to pay for a bogus purchase. It also enables you to avoid entering your card information on a website. These buyer protections don’t apply to money transfers (i.e., sending cash to an individual PayPal account) but only PayPal’s secure checkout options implemented in verified websites.

Great accessories for a better mask fit

Mask Fit Accessories product image

Mask Fit Accessories

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As we mentioned in earlier sections, using a disposable medical procedure mask with an enhanced fit is an effective way to limit exposure and spread, ideally, used concurrently with a well-fitting cloth mask worn over it. Tying off and folding in the flaps of disposable masks properly is one studied way of improving the fit of disposable masks, but a rubber brace can help, as well. This was the thinking behind FixTheMask, a company founded by a former Apple engineer, which manufacturers rubber braces to ensure a tighter facial seal when using disposable masks. The company also offers a free downloadable template to create your own.

Variants also exist on the market, achieving the same goal. Whichever you choose, it’s best to wear a cloth mask over your disposable one, such as the aforementioned Outdoor Research Face Mask Kit or Kitsbow Reusable Face Mask—our two favorite picks for double masking.

Cord locks

Most of our mask picks have adjustable ear loops, but for those that don’t, such as the KN95s or our pick for a clear window mask, cord locks are a useful addition. They’re relatively easy to thread onto your earloops and stay in place well enough to create a more secure fit. We don’t recommend using cord locks in lieu of knotting and pleating a disposable mask in a double mask configuration, as it can be hard to tighten if it becomes loose under your second mask, but as a fit enhancer for your primary mask, these can save you from drooping or less-than-ideal-fitting masks you purchase, especially since they’re typically non-returnable.

Listing image by Getty Images / ArtistGNDphotography

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