Face Masks 101
Guide to choosing the right face mask
Let’s be clear: ANY face covering is better than no face covering at all. The first priority is stopping the air you breathe out from circulating in the air, so a scarf or homemade t-shirt mask will catch some of your breath.
So why bother with a proper face mask?
A well-designed face mask is likely to be much more comfortable, breathable, and effective at trapping the vapour from your breath (and the viral particles that are hitching a ride on that vapour).
The market is absolutely flooded with lots of different types of mask right now, so it can feel pretty overwhelming! Never fear, here’s how to choose the right one for you…
Should I buy disposable surgical masks?
Are you a purchaser for a medical or social care organization? If the answer is no, then no, you don’t need one. Save the medical masks for our healthcare frontline!
Instead, look for reusable and washable fabric masks.
As an individual member of the public, you don’t need the most effective face mask on the market. The idea is that if everyone wears one that’s “good enough”, the likelihood of transmission is significantly reduced.
I can’t afford to get one face mask, let alone multiple...
Lots of local community projects are making masks for donation, so look for ones local to you, and get in touch with them if you are in financial difficulty.
How do I find a local group?
Many local groups are operating through Facebook: look for "[Name of your Town] - AID" groups, and general community groups.
Some mask maker groups are being coordinated by local sewing groups or small businesses such as fabric and haberdashery shops, so reach out to those to see whether they are running a project.
You can also find mask donors through community coordination projects, check out the following links:
You can also find donors using our networking tools:
Fit & comfort
The most important quality a mask should have is that it fits you well:
You are less likely to adjust or touch a face mask that fits comfortably
A good fit will ensure that there are less gaps for unfiltered air to escape through (and trap viral particles better!)
This can also mean that your glasses are less likely to fog up!
So how should you go about finding a mask that will fit you well?
It can be hard to choose a well-fitting mask when you can’t try it on before you buy it, but there are still lots of things you can consider when choosing your mask.
One-size fits all…
Is a myth. If you have an especially average-sized head, anything that says one-size fits all is probably fine. If not, then steer clear. One size may fit all, but it will fit lots of people poorly!
Look for places that are selling more than one size of mask, and if you are stuck on choosing a size send them a message to ask for their recommendation :).
Different styles of face mask
There are various types of mask pattern out there - the most common are pleated masks and “fitted” masks - the type that are smooth and stick out from your face.
A clamshell mask that is custom made to fit your face is likely to be most comfortable and provide a good “seal” around your face.
They provide plenty of breathing space.
They tend to be shaped to go under the eyes and over the nose.
However, due to the shaped nature of this pattern it’s harder to adjust the fit of one that comes “ready-made”.
A mask that doesn’t fit well enough, or have enough give in it, may leave gaps around the face, especially when speaking.
Having a mask custom made can be more expensive and take a lot longer on the turnaround.
Some of these designs will have a seam in the middle. If this seam is “open” (i.e. there is no fabric behind it to reinforce it), there may be a gap right in front of the nose and mouth, that allows unfiltered air to escape.
The fit is much more forgiving and adjustable, you don’t need to place a custom order to get something comfortable.
Pleats create some give in the mask, so that when you open your mouth the mask should expand to accommodate this.
The fit is closer to your face, so can be more claustrophobic.
Tend to be less fitted around the eyes and over the nose, butalso this matters less if the mask has a nose wire.
A quick note on pleats!
Look for pleats that point DOWNWARDS. Upwards pleats are sometimes built into a mask pattern for fitting purposes, but you should still choose downwards facing pleats so that particles (viruses included) don’t settle in the valley of the pleat.
Adjustable and drawstring elastics tend to work well for adjusting the fit of a mask.
Behind the ear elastics can be a little easier to take off and put on than over-the-head elastics, but many people find that they tend to rub over time.
Look for softer elastics and latex-free elastics.
A nose wire means that you can shape your mask to your face, reducing gaps that let unfiltered air escape, and preventing foggy glasses.
Look for a face mask that has a nose wire or a pocket to insert a nose wire in (you can use twist ties, jewellery wire, or soft paperclips).
Number of layers
When looking for a mask, look for ones that have an absolute minimum of 2 layers, and ideally 3 layers, including some kind of filtering layer. More layers are absolutely fine as long as breathability is not compromised, but finding masks with more than 3 layers is quite rare.
Try to buy a face mask that has a non-woven filter that’s sewn in, or at least a filter pocket.
There are LOTS of different filter options out there and it can be overwhelming. The good news is that you can test how effective a mask or a filter material is at home.
Spray aerosolized water (or something like a deodorant or cleaning spray) through the mask onto a mirror. If you see a mist on the mirror, the mask has failed to block the aerosol from going through. If there is no mist, your mask passes the test!
Ideally try to avoid masks that use disposable filters - they cost more in the long run, and are worse for the environment.
Some popularized disposable filters that have been repurposed for mask use (such as HEPA filters), can also be dangerous to use due to their chemical compositions, so avoid these.
Readily available non-woven disposable filter materials include tissues and kitchen roll, which can be used safely.
What if I have found a mask that says it is NHS/WHO/CDC approved, has a certification, or follows a specification or regulations?
This looks impressive, but rarely means very much. Phrases like this in the product description typically just means that it is two or three layers (WHO recommends three as of their latest report), and is hopefully breathable. In most cases, these phrases mean little in terms of the materials that the face mask is made from (even though WHO has advice on this), or the filtration efficacy. There is no standardised certification for non-medical face masks at present.
When you look for a face mask, the most useful information is how many layers it has, which materials make up each of those layers, and how well it is likely to fit you.
What should I avoid?
Masks with only one material layer are far less effective at filtering and trapping water droplets than if that same material was doubled up.
That is, unless the material was very special (i.e., surgical mask material)
Masks that need to be stretched over your face
Some masks that have stretchy qualities are still appropriate to wear, such as those made with a tightly woven cotton jersey knit (t-shirt material).
However, masks that are primarily made out of an elastane blend, and are designed to fit by stretching over the face will be less effective. This is because as the material is stretched, the gaps between the threads that make up the material become wider, allowing more of your breath droplets to pass through.
Masks with valves
There are LOADS of masks with airflow valves on the market. Those valves allow unfiltered air to flow through the mask. When it comes to avoiding viral transmission, most of these masks are self-defeating.
Masks with central seams or gaps
Some mask patterns have a seam in the middle. This is ok, as long as the seam is backed and reinforced, such that unfiltered air cannot pass through the seam easily.
If you are concerned, check with the manufacturer to find out how it’s constructed.
Who should I buy my mask from?
Try to support local businesses and small businesses where you can. Not only are they likely to be cheaper for you, but you’re likely to get a better quality mask, made by someone who has lost their usual work due to the pandemic.
Lots of small mask-making enterprises donate some of their profits to charity as well, so look out for those too!