Early in this pandemic, desperate for face masks, which were sold out everywhere, I made face masks out of shop towels. I’ve set those masks aside because there are so many commercially made fabric masks available now, five months into the pandemic. Many clothing companies now sell fabric face masks.
As it’s likely we’ll all be wearing fabric face masks for the foreseeable future, I bought six different non-medical fabric face masks online for my family to try. I found them by clicking around on the innerwebs and reading reviews, so this is a lightly curated, but still somewhat random assortment. Most are sold in sets of three or more masks, and none is returnable.
Layers, Including Cotton, Work Best
Trying to find the “safest” face mask is a challenge. New research suggests a fabric mask protects the wearer from infection with the virus that causes Covid19, but that depends on the type of mask. The research is still coming in, and it’s still confusing. A recent study showed that neck fleece (gaiter) masks, bandanas and stretchy single layers of knit fabric used as masks can actually make transmission of the coronavirus worse by breaking down large particles into smaller ones that float longer in the air.
Several layers of fabric are better than a single layer, but one study found that a layer or two of cotton and a layer of silk or polyester/Spandex work well to filter small particles from the air. Two layers of high-thread-count quilter’s cotton worked well in another study. Three-layers of cotton may work even better, but if the layers are thick, the mask may make breathing difficult.
Most Masks are Better than No Mask
For exercising, you’ll need a lot of masks because they get wet when you breathe heavily. I bought these six masks with an eye toward finding masks suitable for wearing while exercising. I haven’t seen any scientific studies showing athletic masks made of polyester alone work as well as cotton/polyester or cotton/polypropylene masks.
But, any mask (except a fleece gaiter, bandana or knit scarf) is better than no mask. The snugger the fit, the better, so no air seeps in around the edges of the mask. Remember, distance is your friend when keeping the coronavirus at bay, as no mask can completely protect you if you’re in close proximity to someone who is infected with the virus, symptomatic or not.
One mask I ordered came with PM 2.5 filters, and most of the other masks I bought include an inner pocket where you can slip in a filter if you wish. I researched PM 2.5 mask filters, and was dismayed to discover there’s no evidence PM 2.5 filters (which filter out particles up 2.5 microns in size or larger) can filter out aerosolized particles of the coronavirus, which can be smaller than 1 micron. PM 2.5 filters do filter out pollen, dust, smoke and soot, so if you have allergies, they may be useful.
However, I don’t use filters in my masks. I don’t know who makes these filters and what’s inside them. The filters I have say they are made from “Meltblown Filter” and “Carbon Activated” fabrics. I couldn’t find any studies of the quality, safety or efficacy of these filters. When I’m putting something close to my mouth, I want to know it’s safe to breathe through. Until I find more definitive research about these filters, I’m leaving them out of my masks.
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Unbiased Reviews (by my family) of Six Fabric Face Masks
Here’s what my family members think of these six masks. I washed all of them and they came out fine, although the cotton ones wrinkled and shrunk a bit. They’re listed in alphabetical order, not ranked or rated, because every face is different, and each person has his or her own preferences.
Adidas Face Cover
Adidas makes a stretchy ear-loop mask out of two layers of recycled polyester/elastane (Spandex) fabric These masks come in two sizes, in sets of three, in blue or black, and are often sold out. ($20 for 3 masks plus $5 shipping)
Two of my children prefer this mask, which is quite comfortable. It’s made of an outer layer of somewhat thick polyester fabric, and an inner layer of quick-dry polyester athletic-type fabric, which doubles as a filter pocket. I couldn’t find any studies showing the effectiveness of this type of mask, but it’s thick, so may be effective.
There’s no metal piece over the nose, but it fits closely to the face. My husband, who has a fairly large proboscis, doesn’t like this mask because it left gaps around his nose. I find it a little hot to wear, and the ear loops are tight on my large-ish face. The ear loops are not adjustable, but each mask fits slightly differently. Every member of my family tried on all six Adidas masks I purchased, and picked out the mask that fit his or her face best.
Athleta Made to Move Mask
Athleta Made to Move ear-loop masks are made from an outer layer of polyester/Spandex fabric and an inner layer of polyester mesh fabric. They come in two sizes (women and girls) and two colors. ($25 for 3 masks, plus $6 shipping)
These are comfortable masks, with adjustable ear loops, but as they don’t contain any cotton, I’m not certain how effective they are at filtering out the coronavirus. I haven’t found any studies showing how well two layers of this fabric protects wearers from coronavirus. I’m guessing these masks work reasonably well, but that’s just a guess. The inner layer of fabric accommodates a filter.
These masks have a bendable (metal?) piece over the nose, which doesn’t fit my face very closely, although they fit well under my chin. Because the nose piece isn’t very snug, these masks tend to slip down my face, so I flip them over and wear them upside down, which works better for me. They have a piece of plastic down the center of the mask that keeps the fabric away from your mouth. They also come with a strap that connects the two ear loops and fits behind your head, making the mask more secure during vigorous exercise. I found the strap awkward to use, although it does keep the mask a bit more secure than do ear loops alone. My teenager likes this mask for exercising outdoors.
Aviator Performance Protective Mask 3.0
Aviator makes very comfortable ear-loop masks out of two layers of polyester/Spandex and a soft inside layer of bamboo/cotton/Spandex. One size. Two colors. Made in USA. ($29 for 3 masks, free shipping)
These masks are comfortable, but they lack an adjustable wire over the nose, which makes the fit a bit loose. The ear straps are stretchy and very comfortable, and the inner layer is quite soft and accommodates a disposable filter. The website says the masks currently contain a built-in “performance antimicrobial breathing filter” whatever that means. The masks I received have piece of firm material (plastic?) down the center which I think is supposed to keep the mask away from your face, making it easier to breathe. I find this mask a little thick and hard to breathe through, despite the loose fit, but it is comfortable and doesn’t slide down my face. My small-nosed kids like this mask, but it doesn’t fit my husband’s face well.
Tie Bar Cotton Face Mask
Tie Bar makes 100% cotton, three-layer ear-loop masks out of men’s shirting fabrics in a wide variety of colors. One size for adults, and one size for kids. ($30 for 5 masks, plus $6 shipping)
This is my favorite mask. It has adjustable ear loops, is made of three layers of 100% cotton — two layers of two-ply cotton (meaning it’s durable) and an outer layer of shirting fabric. The innermost layer serves as a filter pocket. This mask is comfortable and fits my face well. It has a metal piece over the nose that adjusts for a tight fit. My children found these masks, meh, likely because of the blue shirting fabrics I chose, but my husband was happy with this one because of the fit over his nose. This mask is a little on the small side, but it fits my face well.
VIDA Protective Mask
VIDA‘s ear-loop mask is made out of two layers of 100% cotton. It comes in one size, eight colors and four color combinations and includes a disposable filter. Made in China. ($18 for 2 masks, $4.50 shipping)
One of my children loves this mask. I like it OK, because the ear loops are adjustable, the mask has an adjustable metal piece over the nose, and it’s easy to breathe through. But the non-stretchy fabric shrunk a little in the wash, making it a bit small for my face. The fit seems a little loose and the fabric is thin. It has an inner pocket for a filter, and the ear loops are very comfortable. I’d like it better if it had three layers of cotton.
Unlike the other masks in my collection, this one comes with a disposable filter, which I’ve set aside. I assume the filters are made in China, but there’s no label. The company’s website says the filters are made from two layers of meltblown filter and one layer of cabon activated fabric. Meltblown fabric is used in medical masks as a filter, but I’m skeptical about breathing through carbon activated fabric of unknown provenance. Some people put folded up coffee filters in their masks, but I don’t. I am not sure coffee filters are great to breathe through, either.
Zensah Performance Face Mask
Zensah‘s Performance Mask is made of a single layer of silver-infused polyester blend stretchy knit fabric with loops that fit around the back of the head. This mask comes in two sizes (adults and kids) and many colors. ($16 each, free shipping)
My adult children love this mask, which is designed for wearing while exercising. My husband hates it because there’s no adjustable metal piece to make the mask fit tightly over the nose. I’m on the fence about this mask because it’s made of only a single layer of knit polyester, which I’m not sure is thick enough to filter out the coronavirus. It’s fine for use outdoors, but I don’t know if it will protect the wearer from breathing in coronavirus particles indoors at the gym. I do love the straps that go behind my head. They are stretchy and comfortable, although the straps are not adjustable. The mask has a little bit of extra fabric in the mouth area to make it easier to breathe.
The polyester blend knit fabric is infused with silver microparticles which I’m not excited about. Silver is supposed to be anti-microbial, but I’m skeptical this fabric will kill off particles of the virus that causes Covid-19. I don’t know how safe it is to breathe in silver particles, should they escape from the fabric. Plus, I wonder how long the silver hangs around in the mask after washing it a few times. My athletic children love this mask because it stays put, dries quickly and is easy to breathe through during exercise. This mask gets lots of good reviews, and it often sells out, but I’d like to see tests of its ability to protect wearers from coronavirus before I trust it to protect me or my family indoors.