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 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 KF94, KN95 masks your teenager can wear to school, or advice on double masking, we can help.
Even with over 60 percent of eligible Americans vaccinated, booster shots available to anyone over 18 years of age, and new federal vaccine mandates in place, the coronavirus is still spreading. The Omicron variant is now the dominant variant of the virus in the United States. There’s still a lot unknown about the new variant, but with COVID surges happening around the country, it’s a good idea to have a face mask on you at all times. That’s especially true if you’re taking any form of public transportation, where face masks are still required in many cities and states. Right now, given how contagious the Omicron variant is, Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health, recommends people opt for medical-grade masks or double-masking over fabric masks alone. “Even though this variant may be milder, it spreads much more easily (70 times faster replication in airways), and in unvaccinated and high-risk individuals, it can still be very dangerous,” Parikh says.
Outdoors continues to be safer than indoors, but you should still wear a mask outside if you are unvaccinated or if you’re hanging out with a large group of people whose vaccination status is unknown, and you should continue to social distance. “We say six feet as the general marker, but we’ve seen evidence that the virus can spread at ten feet or 12 feet,” says Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health who was involved in two COVID-vaccine trials. For times when you can’t avoid spending more time indoors with other people, like in a crowded store, on a plane, or at a doctor’s appointment, doubling up on masks is an easy way to lower your risk. Most of the fabric masks below would work well in combination with a surgical style mask to increase the filtration of your mask — double-masking should not be done with a KN95 or a KF94, as it can mess with the tight seal those masks create, making them less effective.
We asked Vermund and Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, for insight into choosing the best mask for you. The very best 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. These are closely followed by the disposable surgical masks worn by doctors and other health-care professionals, which are cleared by the FDA as meeting certain standards. While it’s still not a good idea to hoard N95 or medical masks, which might keep them from getting into the hands of professionals, it is wise to keep one or two around for especially high-risk occasions, like a plane ride or spending a long period of time in a crowded enclosed space.
For most other situations, that leaves fabric and disposable masks (we’ve rounded up the best of those, too) as the best choice. Segal conducted a study on the efficacy of different materials used for fabric masks and says you want to look for thick, tightly woven cotton like the kinds used for quilting or batik. These are better at filtering small particles close to the size of a virus (0.3 to 0.5 microns). “Our general guidance is to do a quick light test,” Segal says. If you can see light passing through the material when you hold it up to bright light or the sun, it’s less likely to be a good filter.
Segal and Vermund also note that your mask should be both comfortable and fit tightly to your face, but it obviously shouldn’t be so tight or so thick as to impede your breathing. To help find the right face mask for you, we tested 82 of them (so far) on the basis of fit, breathability, style, and whether they pass Segal’s light test. Below are our favorites. We will continue to update this article with new information and edit the list as new masks are wear-tested.
The best fabric masks to buy online
As we continue to fight the virus and its more contagious strains, you may want to consider putting aside your lightweight masks in favor of an upgrade. A materials study conducted by four scientists out of Virginia Tech shows the importance of an additional filter layer sandwiched between two layers of tightly woven cotton. Many of the fabric masks you can buy now feature a pocket for such an additional filter. (We wrote about the best mask filters you can buy here.)
In terms of handling, Segal says, “try to handle it by the ties or ear loops, not the fabric front. Wash your hands after taking it off, and then either hang the mask up to dry out, or wash it before the next use.” And if you’re buying your masks online it’s a good idea to wash them before wearing for the first time. (Here are some directions on how to clean your face mask.)
Masks we’ve tested
We love Baggu’s ear loop masks because they look good, feel good, and stay put. The masks are machine washable and made from 100 percent–organic quilter’s cotton, which is very effective at blocking respiratory droplets. They also feature an adjustable nose wire and a pocket for an extra filter insert.
What we think: While other masks, both flat and accordion style, tend to sit right against your skin, Baggu’s envelope design (similar to a KF94 disposable mask) and sturdy cotton keep the mask slightly off your face, which helps it feel less hot and sweaty. Compared to the brand’s original tie-on masks, these adjustable ear loop masks stay in place just as well, are just as adjustable, feel just as substantial, and are just as fitted, but they’re much easier to use (and they don’t mess up your hair). Both versions pass the light test. Plus, die-hard Baggu fans can match their mask to their favorite tote or reusable shopping bag.
Under Armour’s Sportsmask has sold out multiple times thanks to a unique structured design that keeps it off your face and mouth for added breathability and comfort. The outer layer is water-resistant, and the inner layer is treated to be anti-microbial to help keep the mask fresh even when you’re working out. To protect you from the sun it also features a built-in layer of UPF.
What we think: Compared with other masks Strategist senior writer Karen Iorio Adelson has tried running in, the Under Armour Sportsmask is “easily the most comfortable and best fitting,” she says. It’s also the running mask of choice of Amir Muhammad Figueroa, co-founder of Harlem Run and senior research associate with Lyell Immunopharma. “This is hands down my favorite sports mask, and I’ve tried a lot,” he says. Both of them love that it’s slightly tented over the face so it doesn’t cling to your mouth on the inhale when you’re breathing heavily. It comes in five sizes, so you can really get a close fit, and it works in hot weather just as well as it does on cold, windy days. “I’ve run up to 12 miles with it on, and even then, it’s surprisingly easy to forget I’m wearing a mask at all,” she says.
Under Armour just launched an even lighter-weight and sleeker version of its Sportsmask. We haven’t tested it yet, but the brand claims it’s more breathable, cooler, and stretchier for a more molded fit. The updated Sportsmasks are selling out fast, though, so don’t dillydally.
These dual layer adjustable face masks feature a wire insert above the nose for a tighter fit.
What we think: NxTSTOP masks use adjustable ear loops, a bendable wire nose strip, stretchy fabric, and an added lower section that hugs your chin to create a tight but comfortable fit on many different face shapes. They’re well made, pass the light test, and seem like they will last a long time. The fabric isn’t heavy but they are only average in terms of breathability. NxTSTOP also carries a more breathable version of its mask, made for working out. It has the same fit and number of layers, but the fabric is designed to cool you as you run, hike, or deadlift 200 pounds.
Vistaprint’s masks are made to ensure proper filtration, breathability, and comfort. Their masks feature adjustable ear straps, bendable nose strip, inner filter pocket, and an added fabric panel that hugs the chin for a more snug fit.
What we think: Of the dozens of masks we tested for this story, Vistaprint’s are among our favorites. They don’t feel constricting or heavy and they look cute enough and feel really well made. The fabric is synthetic but moisture-wicking, so it feels a little hotter than a lightweight 100 percent cotton mask but it doesn’t make us sweat — even after wearing it on a hot day. These masks pass the light test on their own, but Vistaprint also sells replaceable filters in packs of 10, which easily slide into the mask’s inner pocket.
We patiently awaited the U.S. release of Uniqlo’s breathable face masks after they sold out in a matter of hours when they originally launched in Tokyo. Made from the company’s signature Airism material, which is lightweight, antimicrobial, and self-deodorizing, these masks have three layers for increased protection. The first inner layer wicks away moisture; the second has a washable, built-in filter; and the third uses a UV-blocking mesh. They come in three colors (white, black, and gray,) and three sizes (small, medium, and large.)
What we think: Though it has three layers, including a built-in filter, the Airism mask is as breathable as we hoped. However, they don’t have a nose strip or adjustable ear loops, which makes them move a bit when you talk. Cho bought a size medium and says it’s a little loose. “I wore it on a run and the thing was sliding off my face,” she says. Still, she likes it enough to go out and buy some toggles to make the ear loops adjustable.
Hedley & Bennett
One of the first brands to start making fabric masks, Hedley & Bennett added these two-ply cotton face masks to their collection of very stylish, well-crafted aprons and chef’s gear.
What we think: Now in the fourth round of design, Hedley & Bennett’s masks have a metal nose strip and a longer body so, according to former Strategist Writer Nikita Richardson, they won’t ride up as much when you’re talking. They also feature easily adjustable ear loops and an inner pocket for adding a filter. The masks come in 8 different colors, all of which pass the light test.
San Francisco fashion brand Vida makes pairs of double-layer 100 percent cotton face masks with adjustable ear loops and free extra filter in a bunch of cool colors.
What we think: Even with the filter in we found these masks breathable. 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 nose piece, which ensures a snug fit — and according to Camilla Cho, our senior VP of e-commerce, helps keep her glasses from fogging up.
Brooklyn-based designer Abacaxi offers these tie-dyed masks to match their tie-dyed hoodies and joggers. The masks come in seven colors and feature a filter pocket and adjustable ear loops.
What we think: We like that these are easy to put on, come in a bunch of cool designs, and don’t get hot like some other thicker masks. Somehow, even without a nose wire, these masks fit tightly and don’t fall down. They are very soft and stylish, without looking just like every other person’s in Prospect Park. With an added filter in place, they pass the light test. Plus, according to Strategist Newsletter Editor, Mia Leimkuhler, they’re good for wearing with a bike helmet. Some of the color options are sold out, so you may want to hurry up and grab one.
Like most surgical masks, this fabric mask has a middle filter layer made of liquid-repellent non-woven polypropylene, making it much harder for droplets to escape or enter. It has easy-to-adjust ear straps that work by simply pulling down on the little loops. And the company donates 10 percent of every purchase to development projects for disadvantaged children and families all over the world.
What we think: Like many people, Strategist writer Louis Cheslaw bought a lot of different masks early on in the pandemic, but this is the only one he has bought twice. “I’d describe it as a mid-weight mask. The material is heavy enough to keep you warm on the coldest day but light enough that you aren’t sweating on warmer days, or sucking in a mouthful of fabric every time you breathe,” he says. It’s everything we’ve learned a mask should be: filter-inclusive, adjustable at the ears, and in Cheslaw’s opinion “good with any outfit.” He also appreciates that the mask doesn’t develop a smell (you know what he’s talking about), and it doesn’t hurt that the company is mission-based either.
[Editor’s note: Proud2Support has replaced this mask with the Block Face Mask, which we haven’t tested het. Like the Olive Face Mask above, the new one has adjustable ear straps, but only two layers of fabric. The inner cotton layer has a water-repellant finish, and the outer cotton layer is treated with a patent-pending Swiss HEIQ V-Block technology meant to inhibit bacteria growth. The new mask is available for $18.]
The Air Mask is one of the few fabric masks we have seen that has undergone independent testing by a leading third-party laboratory to ensure proper filtration. It’s made from two layers of antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, and UV-protective UPF medical-grade fabric and features a bendable nose strip, full face coverage, and an inner filter pocket. It’s also a favorite of Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, who wears them on days she isn’t wearing an N95. For an extra $8 Oura will throw in a NIOSH-approved N95 filter.
What we think: Though it’s not the cutest, Oura’s Air Mask does live up to its name: The fabric is indeed airy, and even with the extra N95 filter inserted, breathing is easy. It also doesn’t get hot and pull moisture away from your mouth. Getting the right size is key: You want the contoured shape to hug you under the chin and the ear loops to be tight enough to keep the mask snug against your cheeks. We also appreciate the brand’s attention to detail, as evidenced in their helpful mask sizing guide.
Sasha Koehn and Erik Allen Ford, co-founders of Buck Mason, make masks using three layers of the heavyweight cotton they usually use to make T-shirts.
What we think: Buck Mason’s masks are very soft and comfortable on a cool day. They also pass the light test thanks to three layers of fabric. Strategist writer Lauren Ro loves how cozy and breathable they are. She also likes that 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.
Buck Mason’s M2 mask has less complicated ear loops than the above mask (and no tie). The loops are adjustable, so they fit multiple face sizes and won’t fall down while you’re talking.
What we think: Strategist senior editor Anthony Rotunno has tried both and says that the M2 has all the cottony softness of the M1, but is far more secure thanks to tiny, grippy tubes made of silicone on the straps. “The biggest problem with the M1 is that its adjustment mechanism never really stays in place well, so you are always futzing with the fit. the M2’s silicone grips are really a revelation in that way, because they keep the straps securely at the length you need, and thus, the mask more securely on your face,” he says.
This set of three-layer masks comes in a variety of sizes to help you get your best fit. They are moisture resistant on the outside and soft on the inside, with a nanofiber middle layer for better filtration.
What we think: Strategist writer Emma Wartzman bought these masks on a whim back in May and ended up loving them. She likes that they’re soft and very breathable, and she has even worn them on a couple of plane trips. “They fit my relatively small face really well even though they’re not adjustable. They haven’t stretched over time, and they don’t wrinkle like the Baggu masks I used to wear,” she says.
For $25 dollars you get a pack of five dual-layer reusable masks that feature stretchy material, soft adjustable elastic ear loops, filter pocket, and a bendable metal strip in the nose bridge.
What we think: We found these masks comfortable and well-fitting. The darker colors seem to do a better job passing the light test. They’re made out of the same moisture-wicking, lightweight material as the company’s bags and accessories, so you won’t feel sweaty while wearing one. According to Strategist writer Dominique Pariso and Strategist junior writer Jenna Milliner-Waddell, they are hotter than a regular surgical mask but not as hot as a bandana. Milliner-Waddlell says they are very breathable and that she wore hers on a six-mile walk with no issues.
Designer Christine Alcalay is making masks using an inner cotton lining and outer layer featuring stylish prints from the brand’s seasonal collection. Christine Alcalay continues to donate to healthcare professionals and organizations working toward equity and social justice.
What we think: The two layers of cotton feel lightweight and breathable, which probably accounts for why some light shines through when you hold it up to a window or lamp. That said, the elastic ear loops don’t pull or pinch your ears, and the brand offers masks in three sizes, which is rare. The small worked well for my oval-shaped face but was too small for a broader-faced man with a lower nose bridge. These masks don’t have a bendable nose wire, but they are the only ones we have tested with darts sewn into each cheek area, which helps the mask to help it better hug the contours of your face. And it stays put for extended periods of time even while talking, so you never have to touch it or your face to readjust.
Made by hand in Brooklyn, these double-layer masks are made using cotton bandanas and an antimicrobial fabric lining. Choose from pink, beige, blue, or black and with or without a pocket to add a filter.
What we think: We have tried both the pleated and non-pleated versions of the Ki Collection bandana masks. Both have a bendable metal nose strip that creates a tight seal and holds the mask in place. The pleated mask is more malleable (the non-pleated one is actually made with three layers of fabric to accommodate a filter) and soft, which makes it mold to your face better and keeps it from shifting when you talk. Both pass the light test and are among the nicest looking of the bunch.
Women’s fashion brand Tanya Taylor is offering sets of three colorful masks composed of two layers of fabric. The outer layer is made of either a cotton-silk or cotton-elastane blend, and the inner layer is 100 percent cotton. Masks feature elastic ear loops and a nose clip for a tighter fit to your face.
What we think: These vibrant pleated masks expand to cover your whole face, from under your chin to the bridge of your nose — or even over the bridge if you prefer. They are soft and breathable, and the metal nose strip keeps them in place even after hours of wear. Although we did notice slight gaps over our cheeks, that could be fixed by tying knots in the ear elastics. These masks don’t completely pass the light test and don’t have a place to put a filter, but they are very comfortable on hot and humid days. The brand now offers an update to their original masks, featuring three layers of cotton, adjustable ear loops, a nose strip, and a contoured fit.
Detroit-based clothing label Diop is making face masks inspired by mud cloth from Mali. Masks feature elastic straps that go around the head instead of the ears for a more secure fit. For each mask sold, Diop is donating a portion of mask proceeds to a handful of coronavirus relief initiatives, including Feed the Frontlines, which supports Detroit restaurants and provides meals to emergency and health-care workers. Fabric patterns vary and are limited. Diop is now selling packs of adhesive aluminum nose strips that you can add to your masks at $5 for a 10 pack.
What we think: Instead of going around your ears, the two elastic straps on this mask go around your head and the back of your neck. This means it’s less likely to move or slide down. We found that it fit tightly, without being constricting, and passed the light test, but it wasn’t the easiest to breathe in.
Diop recently launched a version of its masks with adjustable ear loops instead of elastics that go around your head. The new masks are made using the same fabric as the originals, but they now include a filter pocket. You can also purchase filters for your mask separately on their site.
White Bark Workwear
White Bark Workwear has been collaborating with artists on limited-edition fabric face masks all through the pandemic. They are made of a cotton and hemp blend and attach with adjustable ear loops. These masks, which were hand screen printed by artist Becky Nimoy, have two layers of tightly woven cotton and are some of the most beautiful masks we have seen.
What we think: If you’re looking to make a statement while also supporting a good cause, these masks are a great choice. They’re hand-printed, and buying them helps support the artist, which makes them feel pretty special. Plus the fabric is thick and solid-feeling, and they cover a larger amount of the face than most fabric masks. Because of this, they feel like a good choice for wearing on the subway or in other crowded spaces.
Rendall Co. founder Deirdra Jones has been outfitting the hospitality industry with aprons and other stylish and functional workwear since 2012. Each of her company’s masks is made with two layers of pleated cotton. They feature a filter pocket and adjustable nose wire.
What we think: Rendall Co.’s masks are made of heavyweight cotton, which makes them feel very substantial and protective; it also means they pass the light test. Although they look nice on, we did find them less comfortable than many other options because of the way the rigid material puts pressure on your nose. The ear loops are handy, but without anything built in to make them adjustable, these masks run large. But if you have a large face and are looking for something thick and protective, this is it.
These washable cotton masks come with an activated charcoal filter and are available in five colors.
What we think: Aside from some small gaps on either side of the nose, this mask fit well without feeling constricting. It’s very soft inside and passes the light test without an added filter. The mask wasn’t our top pick in the summer heat, but now that the temperature has dropped, it feels downright cozy. In addition to an activated charcoal filter each mask comes with ten sanitizing alcohol wipes for your phone.
We first heard about Mamask when we included its cute kids masks in our children’s-masks roundup. Then Strategist writer Louis Cheslaw gave its masks his seal of approval. The company made jackets, suits, and other clothing for some of Korea’s top fashion brands before the pandemic, and it now produces an assortment of masks for both adults and children, including sport masks and these thicker fall/winter masks. The fall/winter masks are made of two layers of 100 percent cotton with a bendable nose strip and adjustable ear elastics. They also come with a free copper-ion fabric filter included.
What we think: These masks are breathable but sturdy enough to block the wind on chilly days. They come in multiple sizes and fit both me and my fiancé well, thanks to the adjustable ear loops. The thick cotton outer layer makes them feel durable, and the contrasting piping gives them just the right amount of pizzazz. (My fiancé isn’t a fan of most decorative masks.) We wore them out sledding in Prospect Park, and they kept our noses and cheeks warm and cozy. The included filter feels substantial enough to make me confident about wearing these on the subway or in other crowded spaces.
Masks we like but haven’t tested yet
In our article about the best face masks according to teens, Columbia student Tyrese Thomas says supporting brands that are moving the fashion industry forward is important to him. That’s why he wears a mask from POC-owned streetwear brand Profound. Its triple-layer masks feature adjustable ear loops, a metal nose strip, and a pocket for an added filter (one is included with each mask). A portion of every sale goes to the International Rescue Committee and health-care workers in New York and New Jersey.
Made in collaboration with Mara Hoffman, Custom Collaborative’s community of artisans, buying one of their masks provides vital income to the women in Custom Collaborative’s programs who rely on fashion production work to support them and their families. For each mask purchased, they are donating a mask to frontline workers.
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