While not as sustainable as reusable cloth masks, disposable masks are good to have on hand if you’re in a pinch or if you just want a quick supply of ready-to-go options. But are they as effective in protecting you and those around you from the coronavirus? And how can you tell if some options are better than others? With COVID cases increasing across the country and new more contagious variants posing an even greater threat, these questions are even more pressing than before.
According to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health who was involved in two of the COVID-vaccine trials, the new COVID variants, combined with pandemic fatigue and vaccine misconceptions, make mask use more important now than ever. “We’re finding that upwards of 50 percent of cases are happening by asymptomatic spread. So even if you’ve been vaccinated, it is crucial to continue to wear masks because we know the vaccine prevents you from getting symptomatically sick, but we don’t know for sure yet if the vaccine will prevent you from passing the virus without symptoms,” she says. Outdoors continues to be safer than indoors, but you should still wear a mask while walking with a friend in the park and stay at least six feet away — if not more. “We say six feet as the general marker, but we’ve seen evidence that the virus can spread at ten feet or 12 feet.” She also recommends keeping trips to the grocery store and other indoor spaces brief. For times when you can’t avoid spending more time in close quarters with other people, like on a plane or at a doctor’s appointment, doubling up on masks (like we saw a lot of at the inauguration) is an easy way to lower your risk.
The very best disposable face masks, of course, are N95 masks — the gold-standard pandemic masks, approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which filter out 95 percent of airborne particles. But the CDC recommends that the public not buy N95 masks, to ensure there’s a supply for health-care workers. There are also the disposable surgical masks worn by doctors and other health-care professionals, which are cleared by the FDA as meeting certain standards, but they’re not available to the general public, so they’re off the table, too. What is available are nonmedical masks.
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.)
Most of the rest of what you’ll see are pleated disposable masks. Florida Atlantic University engineering professor Siddhartha Verma, lead author of a recent study on the efficiency of different mask materials, says the quality of these masks varies. But the most important thing to remember during this crisis is that any mask is better than no mask when it comes to protecting yourself and those around you. “There’s even been a good amount of recent data indicating that masks are effective for protecting the wearer,” says Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a family-medicine specialist in New York City. “For people who did contract COVID while wearing a mask, the viral load that they were exposed to was much less. And so while they did become infected, in certain cases, their symptoms were much less because we know that viral load is tied to the severity of the disease.”
How should your mask fit?
Even the best masks can fail if there are gaps around the edges where potential viral droplets can enter or escape. “Look for a mask that fits your face well, assuring that it covers your nose and mouth and fits below your chin,” says Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. If you end up buying a pack of disposable masks that are too big, don’t worry: De-Lin says you can tie knots in the ear loops or twist them once before putting them on to ensure a tighter fit. (If you’re no good at knots, there are lots of straps and accessories you can buy online to adjust the fit.)
The best disposable face masks for adults
We asked Kullar, De-Lin, and Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health, to weigh in on which disposable masks are the best and why. Based on their advice, we ordered a handful to test on our own, subjecting them to the light test, where we hold the mask up to the sun or a bright lamp to see how much light passes through. (This was suggested to us by Kullar and earlier this year by Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health.) We also tried to blow out a candle while wearing them, a test that first became popular when Bill Nye used it on TikTok and which was explained more fully by NPR. Basically, if you can easily blow the flame out, it may be a sign that your mask isn’t blocking enough of your breath (and whatever germs are in it).
Not only are these Ecoguard disposable masks FDA registered, but they are EUA certified by the FDA. This means that, while they are not medical grade, they are certified for emergency use during the COVID-19 public-health emergency. Each mask is made in the USA out of three layers of nonwoven fabric. And each box comes with a scannable QR code to help consumers avoid counterfeit purchases.
What we think:
These masks are very comfortable and fit pretty well without much need for adjustment. They let a small amount of light through, but their nonwoven construction means the light is diffused, rather than how it might shine through gaps between the woven threads of a fabric mask. No matter how hard we tried to blow out the flame of a lighter, it wouldn’t even budge.
Both De-Lin and Vermund say that essential workers like teachers, grocery-store clerks, and bus drivers, all of whom spend long periods of time in enclosed spaces with others, should consider wearing KN95s. Also, “If you have a condition that puts you at an especially high risk and you have to be in public, go shopping, or whatever, you may want to go with the KN95 mask, too,” Vermund says. In these cases, fit is even more important. “I think the biggest thing that I see with the KN95 masks is they’re often not fitted well. It’s supposed to collapse along your cheeks when you inhale so that no air can enter in through the sides,” De-Lin says.
This particular KN95 comes specifically recommended by De-Lin. “It is NIOSH approved. The company’s business model is such that it is able to provide large amounts to medical organizations as well as provide smaller amounts to the public,” she says. N95 Mask Co also sells this surgical-style disposable mask with ear loops, designed to help eliminate gaps on the sides.
Though they are technically nonmedical, Powecom KN95 masks are on the FDA’s list of approved emergency PPE, and they claim to filter out 95 percent of small particles. We gave one to Jacob Cohen, a second-grade teacher in Brooklyn who has tried a lot of KN95s this fall. Cohen says they fit more snugly than the other KN95s he has tried and don’t move at all when he is talking.
What we think:
These masks are soft on the skin and create a tight seal all the way around from nose bridge to under the chin. They meet De-Lin’s fit requirement, collapsing around the cheeks when you breathe. When worn with glasses, they did not cause much fog. It’s impossible to blow out a flame while wearing one, and very little light passes through the fabric when it’s held up to the sun or a lamp.
If there’s one disposable mask we could call trendy, it’s the all-black style we’ve seen on everyone from stylish Brooklynites waiting in line for coffee to a bunch of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Kaia Gerber, Cara Delevingne, Ariana Grande, Emily Ratajkowski, and even on Kanye West when he announced that he voted for himself on Instagram. According to Kullar, as long as they fit you well, these masks are suitable for nonmedical use, and because of their three layers made of nonwoven polypropylene and melt-blown fabric, they would help stop the spread of COVID-19. WeCare makes a wide variety of disposable surgical-style masks, from solid colors to prints like tie-dye and plaid. The inner layer is soft and absorbent for comfort and to trap droplets. The middle layer is melt-blown fabric to filter, and the outer layer is leakproof to further prevent droplet escape.
What we think:
Each mask is individually wrapped and very lightweight, making these perfect for keeping in a bag or jacket pocket as a backup mask. They’re soft against the skin, and the bendable nose strip helps with fit and when wearing with glasses — though there’s still a fair amount of fogging. You can see a little bit of light coming through the mask when it’s held up to the sun, but blowing out a flame isn’t possible.
These disposable masks are a favorite of Strategist associate director of audience growth, Stephanie Downes (they’ve also been spotted on Hailey Bieber), who, as an immunocompromised person, has to be very careful about the masks she wears. She appreciates that they are independently tested and certified medical-grade type IIR by SGS, a world leader in consumer product testing, and that they stay put while still being comfortable enough to wear during outdoor workouts. They’re made with three layers: a water-resistant outer layer, a melt-blown center, and a water-absorbing inner layer. Plus they’re made in an FDA-registered PPE factory and come shipped in sterile 100 percent plant-based biodegradable packaging. Evolvetogether makes masks in black, gray, white, and forest green. After looking them up online, De-Lin says, “These do look like they’re medical quality, given the material, so I think people could feel comfortable wearing them, and it would be protective.” And they’re one of the only disposable-mask brands donating masks and sale proceeds to a good cause. Sales of their green masks benefit One Tree Planted, a global reforestation nonprofit.
What we think:
Of the three surgical-style disposable masks we tried, these are the softest inside. When held up to a window and a lamp, they let virtually no light through. However, when we tried to blow out the flame of a lighter while wearing it, even though the flame didn’t go out, it did move slightly more than with the mask from WeCare.
The best disposable masks for kids
With elementary-school kids’ tendency to lose things or drop them (or cover them with glue on a whim), it’s a good idea to pack a few extra masks in their backpack, just in case. “You never know when your mask is going to get soiled or damaged. So it’s a good idea to have a backup,” says Vermund. Mom of three Jodelle Reed stocks her kids’ backpacks with individually wrapped disposable masks in case of emergencies.
Evolvetogether’s kids’ masks are made using the same process as their adult masks: with medical-grade materials in an FDA-registered PPE factory. The only difference is size (they’re also great for adults with smaller faces) — and the included adorable sticker packs for mask decoration.
Father of two Matt Merkin says his kids like wearing these fun patterned disposable masks both for comfort and style. They feature three nonwoven fabric layers, one of which is a high-density filter with activated carbon.
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