stuff we buy ourselves

The Fabric Face Masks Our Editors and Writers Are Wearing

Photo-Illustration: retailers

In light of the Omicron variant and at the urging of public-health experts, the CDC has updated its mask guidelines. The agency’s new standards stress that fabric masks are the least protective against COVID-19, whereas well-fitting N95, KN95, and KF94 masks — which use special nonwoven materials with an electric charge to block tiny aerosol particles — do a much better job of stopping the virus’s spread. Of course, any mask is better than no mask, but since this article was last updated in January 2021, we’ve talked to doctors, scientists, and public-health experts to help you find the best and most protective of the bunch. So whether you’re looking for a comfortable N95 you can wear on a plane, a child-size KF94KN95 masks your teenager can wear to school, or advice on double masking, we can help.

If you follow our monthly Strategist Haul, you’re familiar with the idiosyncrasies of our editors’ and writers’ shopping habits. While we think of those as the highlights, there are plenty of other, less glamorous things we buy — and love — on the regular too. So whether you’ve wondered about the work bags we tote around or the underwear we’re most loyal to, this is the Stuff We Buy Ourselves. In this edition, the fabric face masks our editors and writers are wearing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. For expert medical advice about face masks (along with recommendations), check out our article on where to buy face masks online and our exhaustive guide to everything we’ve learned about masks over the last six months.

Note: We asked each writer to subject their mask to the light test — a simple (but not foolproof) way that doctors taught us to determine a mask’s relative efficacy. When you hold it up to the sun or another bright light source, you don’t want much of that light to come through. The more you see, the more droplets are likely to pass through the material.

Jenna Milliner-Waddell, junior writer

$25 for 5

These masks were sent to me by Caraa, and I am very grateful since, before I got them, I was using bandanas, tied in a kind of Coachella-desert-vibes way, which would slip down and untie, or give me a headache mid–grocery store run. The Caraa masks are far more comfortable. They go around my ears with soft elastic that doesn’t pinch, and the metal strip in the nose bridge helps me get a snug fit that’s not restrictive. I even wore one on a six-mile walk with no complaints. (Fellow writer Chloe Anello is also a fan of Caraa masks.)

Light test: I can see the shadow of my fingers when I hold each mask up to a light. The thin, lightweight material that causes that is probably also the reason they’re so comfortable to wear. I’m not too concerned now, but as things start to open up and I do more socially distanced activities, I will probably invest in a thicker mask that’s hopefully just as comfortable.

Chloe Anello, junior writer

I recently wrote a story about my obsession with checkerboard prints. After talking to Primecut founder, Lizzie Everson, for the story, I really wanted to buy the brand’s masks. I bought a three-pack of mixed paterns that included tie-dye, black, and checkerboard — I wear the checkerboard one the most (shocker!). Now it’s my favorite mask, and not just for the pattern. Primecut masks come in three different adult sizes and one kids’ size (I bought the adult medium), so it’s easier to find your best fit than with those that come in one size fits all. It has a wire on the nose for a custom fit, and it’s extremely comfortable. It comes up a bit high on my face, so wearing oversize glasses doesn’t work that well — I wear contacts if I’ll be wearing it for an extended period of time — but it hasn’t actually fogged up my glasses yet. I also find it to be extremely breathable, even though it’s very thick.

Light test: pass

Jill was my favorite housewife when she was on The Real Housewives of New York — maybe it’s because I’m also a Jewish redhead, who’s to say? — so I was intrigued by her line of masks. Honestly, these masks are really good. They’re light and breathable, don’t fog up my glasses, and fit underneath my lenses comfortably. They’re on the expensive side, but so worth it because they’re some of the only masks I can wear with my glasses. I feel really cute in them. And they can also be thrown in the washing machine instead of having to hand-wash them, which is such a treat.

Light test: They fail but not by much. Only tiny slivers of light peek through.

Lauren Ro, writer

The masks my husband and I bought earlier on in the pandemic got too hot for warmer weather, so we started trying a bunch of different ones, including the Baggu, which, while supercute, is really tricky to put on and a bit too bulky. Our new favorites are masks from Buck Mason and Vida. I personally love how soft and breathable the Buck Masons are. They have ear loops and a tie, which makes them easy to keep on and also hang from your neck if you need to take the mask off for a moment. They have wide coverage and always stay on, and they’re ideal for workouts or runs outside.

$28 for 2

We got a bunch of Vida masks in a variety of colors. My favorites are the pastel-y ones with white trim (the ones with black trim remind me of American Apparel underwear too much) because they’re actually cute. I like that they’re easy to put on, thanks to their adjustable ear loops and the fact that they come with filters (though we’ve yet to try them) and a wire nosepiece. I did notice that they’re maybe slightly too short because, when I’m talking a lot, I have to keep pulling them up to stay on my nose, but it’s generally fine. They also get a bit wrinkly in the wash, but you’re technically supposed to hand-wash them, so that’s probably my fault.

Maxine Builder, managing editor

At the beginning of April, my dad shipped me a pack of face masks from Hyperlite Mountain Gear, based in Biddeford, Maine. The company specializes in beautifully crafted, super-lightweight backpacks and tents. Unsurprisingly, its face masks are also very lightweight, made of two layers of water-resistant polyester. My biggest complaint is that they kind of look like a pair of underwear on my face. But they’re about as breathable and comfortable as a mask can (or should) be, with a flexible metal band to secure it on my nose, and they have worn well in the washing machine, though I do air-dry them. They’re also a very reasonable price. They’ve become my go-tos for hiking, since they’re secure enough to stay on during activity and light enough to be comfortable (especially in the white, though it does get dirty).

Light test: Pass.

As soon as we featured these face masks from MOCA in our column Don’t Dillydally, I grabbed the one that’s printed with Andy Warhol’s “Flowers,” and not only does it look great (and I’m actually sort of excited to wear it), but I like the construction so much that I’m planning on getting a couple more (and even going to Citizens of Humanity, which manufactures them to get a less expensive non-MOCA-printed version). It absolutely passes the light test, and there’s a pocket for a filter, but it’s still a fairly lightweight construction that fits comfortably over my entire nose and chin. This is my first mask that uses a tie rather than elastic ear loops, and I’m pleased to find it feels so much more secure, because the string doesn’t stretch out like elastic does and I can tighten it as much as I need. The flip side is that it takes longer to put on properly, but that also makes me feel a touch more safe.

Light test: Pass.

Not only do the Food52 face masks look darling, but they’ve turned out to be the sturdiest masks I own. The description says there’s a wire insert around the nose, but mine seems to be missing it. It doesn’t matter, though, because it fits snugly. There’s a pocket between two layers of cotton canvas for a filter, and the ear loops are easy to adjust with the tug of elastic. So my mask is never at risk of slipping down or falling off, and if I do have to tighten it up while wearing it out, I don’t have to bring my fingers close to my face. The canvas has shrunk after a few rounds of washing in the washing machine and air-drying, so I would recommend only hand-washing for best results.

Light test: Pass.

Nikita Richardson, writer

Hedley and Bennett, best known for making stylish, well-crafted aprons, was one the first brands I noticed that went into the mask-making market back in April. Getting a mask from them at the time was pure chaos, because they were selling some of the most attractive masks and everyone wanted one, including me. The mask I ordered then was pretty good, but most definitely a work in progress. It seems like the company has figured it out now: Not only are masks shipping in one to three days (it took me three weeks to get my first!), but they now have a metal strip so you can secure the mask around the bridge of your nose; the mask is a bit longer at the bottom, so it won’t ride up as much when you’re talking; and the little pocket where you can place a filter is properly layered now, which means it doesn’t open up during use. The fabric is a wee-bit thick, but the construction is so sound that I don’t mind at all. Best of all, you can choose your mask colors now, and I’ve finally got the beautiful red mask that made me want to purchase from H&B in the first place.

Light test: With a filter in, they pass.

Louis Cheslaw, writer

After Lisa Lucas recommended this face mask to us, I was instantly attracted to its adjustable ear straps and her claim that, when wearing them, “you can breathe!” I bought two for fall, thinking I’d have to wait until October to wear them, but after trying one on when they arrived in mid-August, I haven’t taken them off — and have kissed good-bye to my blue surgical masks. They’re incredibly comfortable, and while relatively thick, the design means you have a pocket of air to breathe in while wearing it (as opposed to masks that you suck in and out of your mouth as you breathe). The colors are really fun, they’re machine washable, you can insert a filter in, AND, as a bonus, the company’s sales team is lovely: After my package was held up, the team instantly put two more in the mail for me for free. It’s great that I have so many now, though they do keep disappearing into my girlfriend’s jackets and bags.

Light test: Pass.

Karen Iorio Adelson, senior writer

Masks with elastic ear loops tend to be a little too big on me, so I decided to try these out. The string ties make getting a tight fit easier, and I like that the mask is pleated so you can extend it to cover your whole face. They’re thick enough to be protective, but not so thick as to be hot or uncomfortable. And the stripes are actually kind of chic.

Light test: Pass.

Hilary Reid, writer

I ordered a couple of these masks from Katherine Hanes after hearing good things about them from my best friend, and so far have been happy with the purchase. In pre-COVID days, Hanes made lovely block-print table linens, and is now using those same fabrics for masks. Each one is made of double-layer 100 percent cotton, and has a different pattern on each side. Mine are in “Sweet Green” (lol) and “Climbing Rose,” and feel substantial without being suffocating. They really cover the lower half of my face, which feels secure, but still bearable on warmer days. The elastic ear straps fit pretty comfortably, too — and if they’re too big, you can just tie a small knot to shorten the length.

Light test: Only a very small amount of light comes through when you hold them up to the window.

In addition to the Katherine Hanes masks — which I still love and have ordered several more of since we last wrote about our masks — I’ve been wearing these masks from Clare V. I split the four-pack with a friend but honestly might have to buy my own four-pack because they’re that good. I’d worried the ties would be annoying for taking on and off, but that hasn’t been the case at all; surprisingly, they feel just as secure as elastic ear straps, and I like that you can fasten them either at the back of your head and at the base of your neck or behind each ear. The material is a thick (but not too-thick) crisp double layer of cotton, which definitely passes the light test and comes in some very charming gingham prints.

Light test: Pass.

Tembe Denton-Hurst, writer

I’m actually anti–nose strip because of the way it holds my nose in an inappropriately long hug. It also prevents me from making natural facial expressions. Which is why I love Everlane’s masks. They feel like I’m covering my face in an ultrasoft T-shirt. The ear loops are made from cloth too, which makes for a comfortable fit even after hours of wear. I forget I’m wearing this mask sometimes, which is a testament to its breathability — a big factor in whether I’m willing to wear any mask often or swap it out for something else. (Fellow writer Liza Corsillo also keeps an Everlane mask in her lineup of masks but has the tie-dyed version instead of the solid black or gray.)

Light test: Pass.

I recently got these masks from BaubleBar, and I am very impressed. They’re one of the better-fitting masks I’ve tried so far. And what’s not to love about the cute patterns? They have a really soft inner cotton layer, and they feel breathable but still thick and protective.

Light test: Pass.

Casey Lewis, senior editor

For two months, I wore my grandmother’s vintage scarf around my face, bandanna-style, with the intention of buying a proper mask. But I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of masks out there and kept putting it off. Then I saw that a friend of mine was making extremely cute masks covered in flowers (truly, the cutest mask I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot). I went for it. I’m not really a floral person — most of my closet is black — but after several months of feeling nonstop doom and gloom, being covered in colorful blooms makes me feel oddly optimistic. And now I’m eyeing her “howdy” mask.

Light test: I can see a LITTLE light through it, but not much.

Camilla Cho, senior VP of e-commerce

$28 for 2

I got the two-pack of Vida Protective masks, plus an extra order of the mask replacement filters (five for $12). They’re made of two very light layers of 100 percent cotton with a pocket for a filter, which is included. Even with the filter in, I found these masks to be easy to breathe through. The adjustable ear straps mean there’s no fumbling to tie the mask straps behind your head or mess up your hair. Plus there’s a metal nosepiece, which ensures a snug fit and helps keep my glasses from fogging up. After about five or so washes, however, the nose wire has gotten a bit out of shape and hard to center on the mask. But I’ve gotten great use out of these masks, and they’re still one of my faves, so I recently ordered two more.

Light test: With the filter in, they pass; without the filter, they fail.

This mask from Outdoor Research is comfortable, light, easily adjustable, and seems well made. I wore it on a longish run (six miles), and it was comfortable the whole way through and very breathable. I think that’s because there is no fabric between my mouth and the filter, which means I have to replace the filter faster than if there were fabric to protect it. The brand has its own special filter (shaped like the mask), which is good but on the pricey side ($5 for three). When you buy this kit, you get one mask, two filters, and a carrying case, which is kinda nice.

Light test: Pass.

$20 for 3

I like this Adidas mask because it feels good to the touch and stays cool, making it good for outdoor activities and workouts. I do wish there were adjustable straps on it, though. But even without that, these are a great value at $20 for three. So I would buy them again.

Light test: Pass.

The Buff CoolNet is thinner, cooler, and more breathable than the regular Buff neck gaiter, which makes it ideal for running, biking, or other outdoor activities. But since it’s so light, I only wear mine when I’m running or biking in a not-too-crowded area.

Light test: Fail.

Stephanie Downes, associate director of audience growth

I’ve only tried about five brands of masks, but this one from Christine Alcalay is by far my favorite, and it’s my go-to mask when I know I won’t be going inside or getting too close to anyone, so I’ll wear it for dog walks and going to the park. The loops are perfect; they don’t pull on my ears and haven’t stretched after over a month of wearing and washing. The darts keep it tight to my face, but it’s still supercomfortable. Sometimes I forget I’m wearing it when I get back to my apartment.

Light test: When I hold it up to a light, I can just barely see the shadow of my fingers through the fabric.

$9 for 7

I wear these when I know I’m going to be close to people or if it’s especially hot outside. They have three layers of filtration and claim to be nearly as effective as an N95, which, as an immunocompromised person, makes me feel a little better about running errands. They’re great for a hot day or outside workouts because the inside layer is absorbing and soft and stays in place thanks to the inner adjustable nose bridge and ear loops that are supersoft and don’t tug. These are disposable, so after wearing one in a higher-risk situation, I can quickly throw it away. Plus, some of the company’s masks benefit the ACLU and Covenant House New York to help protect Black Lives Matter protesters and homeless youth.

Light test: Pass.

If I am going into a doctor’s office or a place with no windows or very little circulation, I wear these KN95s.

Light test: Pass.

Mia Leimkuhler, newsletter editor

$32 for 3

Basically, I rotate between three masks: Abacaxi for mask-on, mask-off situations; Found My Animal when it’s colder out; and these Baggu masks for keeping on for longer periods of time. I call these my “set it and forget it” masks. I just tie one on and then go about my errands, and they’re breathable enough that I’m not dying to take them off. Recently, when I traveled to Montreal, I put it on when I left my apartment in Philly, kept it on at the airport and on the flight (save for a little drink of water), kept it on through the Montreal airport and customs, and didn’t take it off until I got in the rental car. At no point did it feel too hot or too smothery, and even though both ends are adjustable, if you get the top loop to a length you like, it pretty much stays that way while you untie and retie the bottom part. This is what I’m wearing instead of the Found My Animal mask, which is very warm and will for sure be my fall/winter mask.

Light test: Pass.

The Found My Animal mask is supersoft on the inside, and the nose clip keeps the mask securely in place, which is very helpful for my low-bridge profile. The ties are easy to use, and I think they look nice: The top one acts as a nice little bow when anchored by a topknot or ponytail. Once it gets chilly out again, I’ll use it for easy strolls or grocery-store runs — anything where I know I’ll be putting my mask on and not taking it off until I get back home.

Light test: Let a little light through.

From $50 for 3

These Abacaxi masks are lighter and easier to stuff into a pocket or fanny pack or wear with a bike helmet. The elastic is easier on the ears than other versions I’ve tried, and the cotton is nicely breathable, so I don’t overheat. I use this mask for bike rides or outings in which I might have a drink with me (the elastic loops make it easier to take off and slip back on).

Light test: Let some light through but isn’t like holding a thin sheet up to the light.

Liza Corsillo, writer

Over the past few months, I have been testing out a ton of fabric face masks and even made a few of my own. Of the ones I didn’t personally sew, my favorites are a plaid cotton double-layer mask from designer Christine Alcalay (see above,) a pleated mask made out of bandanna fabric with a solid-color cotton liner from Brooklyn-based Ki Collection, a tie-dyed soft cotton mask from Re/Done, and a daisy-print mask from Vistaprint. All of them feel secure but pretty breathable and lightweight on my face, and the elastic ear loops are sturdy but don’t pull or pinch at my ears. Most important, they stay put for extended periods of time and even when I talk, so I never have to touch them to readjust. The Vistaprint loops are adjustable. Both the Ki Collection and Vistaprint masks have a bendable metal nose strip that creates a tight seal and holds the mask in place. And the mask from Re/Done fits my face so well it doesn’t need a nose strip. In addition to the fit and function of these three masks, I love how they look on my face and go with just about anything I wear.

Light test: When I hold the Ki Collection mask up to a light, I can just barely see a tiny bit of light passing through, but if I add a filter, I can’t see anything. The Re/Done mask blocks almost all light, and the Vistaprint one passes the light test with flying colors.

Katy Schneider, editor

My friend Nick’s company Ijji makes the best chore jackets, unisex pants, and, now, genuinely nice-looking and comfortable masks. They tie around the neck and over the ear and feel thick and sturdy on.

Light test: Pass.

Peter Martin, senior editor

From $15

My wife and I bought masks from the Narativ, a shop in our neighborhood in Brooklyn that sells ethically sourced products from makers around the world. (Although the specific design with elastic bands we bought is sold out, Narativ has some other options with ties remaining, including the mask pictured.) It just felt nicer to support a local business instead of J.Crew. Not that J.Crew is exactly thriving or that I’m above buying the next one from there. Especially if it is called the Ludlow.

The mask is double layered, and I had no trouble breathing in it during a 30-minute grocery run in a massive suburban Pennsylvania Wegmans. I did experience two issues that’ll keep me looking for a slightly larger option: When you talk, this mask tends to ride down on your face and require occasional tugs to get it back in place. Also, more slack would help to comfortably accommodate my nose. Although anyone shaped less like a bird of prey should be fine there.

Light test: Pass.

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The Fabric Face Masks Our Editors and Writers Are Wearing