Even with more than half of eligible Americans vaccinated and new federal vaccine mandates in place, the coronavirus is still spreading. Coinciding with the beginning of a new school year, the highly contagious Delta variant is surging around the country, hospitals are once again filling up, and breakthrough infections are becoming increasingly common. In response, the CDC suggests that all people — regardless of vaccination status — should wear masks in areas with a high number of COVID cases (so, everywhere), especially when you’re indoors. It also adjusted its school guidelines, recommending that all teachers, staff, and students wear masks in K–12 schools. With so much uncertainty still surrounding the virus, and mask rules varying from place to place (not to mention seeming to change week to week), 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.
According to Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health who published a study on the subject, “many types of masks can essentially block droplet transmission. If you aerosolized the virus, it might seep through a lot of masks, but when most people cough, the aerosol released is a small volume and the droplet is a large volume. So if you block the droplets, you may substantially reduce exposure.”
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 in close quarters with other people, like on a plane or at a doctor’s appointment, doubling up on masks is an easy way to lower your risk.
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.