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The Best Masks, According to Cool Teens (and College Students)

Photo: courtesy

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 August 2020, 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.

With classes across the country going remote — at least partially — sweats and slippers have ousted jeans and sneakers on many students’ back-to-school shopping lists, and instead of new backpacks, teens are spending their allowance on a different kind of school supply: face masks. We talked to 30 stylish teens and undergrads about the masks they’ve been wearing to keep themselves safe, both on campus (for those who have returned) and off (for the great many who have not). Here’s what they had to say.

Two students recommended Lisa Says Gah, the cool-girl L.A. label, for its baby rib knit masks. Boston University student Zoe Allen has it in lime and loves it “so much so, in fact, that I’ve already bought a second one in the color sage. It’s colorful, breathable, washable, and enviable,” she adds, noting that she’s received countless messages asking where to buy them. Wen Hsiao, a student at the University of Amsterdam, is particularly impressed by the brand’s knit mask and scrunchie set. “I love the color options and the idea of matching your scrunchie to your mask, creating a little silver lining through these trying times,” she says. Both Zoe and Wen point out that Lisa Says Gah is donating $1 to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank for every mask purchased.

Columbia student Thandiwe Genevieve, 19, says she’s been wearing this ’70s floral-print mask from the Latina-owned vintage shop Miracle Eye. “It’s kept me stylish and safe this summer through protests, interborough bike rides, and reading days in my favorite gardens,” she says. “Though I’m wary about the safety of going back to school, I’m grateful for a university that has the resources to keep its students safe — and a mask that has the color palette to complement any outfit.”

19-year-old Maya Holley bought her mask at a Justice for George Floyd protest. “It’s a peaceful way to demonstrate what is right and to remind people that POCs’ fight for justice and equality is still going on and won’t stop until we fix the systemic racism embedded in the culture and functionality of the U.S.,” she says.

Maya Crawford, 19, says this mask — made by medical-apparel brand Jaanuu — “fits my face best by far because it molds to my nose and jawline, which makes it safer, as well.” A five-pack costs $25, and they come in more than a dozen colors and patterns; Maya wears the “royal blossom,” a pretty blue floral. “I love it because it’s made with antimicrobial fabric, it’s sustainable, and for every one purchased, Jaanuu donates another to an organization in need,” she adds.

Isabella Dambra, a student at USC, says face coverings are her top priority for back-to-school shopping. “Masks are essential!” she exclaims. Plus, “there are so many small businesses selling masks that need our help.” One of her favorites is by Reuse Masks LA, an indie brand making masks from dead-stock fabrics. Coco Zangi, a student at FIT, also loves the brand, which she found a few months ago via Instagram. “I love them because the material is super-breathable and comfortable and insanely soft,” she says. “They can be easily washed and come in so many different colors and prints. I really don’t feel like I’m wearing a mask with these!”

Daily Disco, a custom design studio based in St. Louis, introduced masks (as well as beanies embroidered with phrases like “social distancing”) shortly after the pandemic hit. And though they make masks in loads of different colors and tie-dye prints, Claudia Olivos, 18, especially loves their leopard one. “With masks becoming an essential part of life, I’ve definitely started to incorporate it into my outfits,” she says. “I love accessorizing, so masks were just another perk for me.” Daily Disco’s “express my style, are very comfortable, don’t irritate my skin, and are super-affordable!”

Columbia student Tyrese Thomas says “as we face a global pandemic, struggle for infrastructural equity for Black, IPOC, and queer individuals, and endeavor to make the world better than it was yesterday,” 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. “Not only do they come in an assortment of styles that can be dressed up or down, but they also have a PM 2.5 filter for additional protection — and a portion of each sale goes to the International Rescue Committee, health-care workers in N.Y./N.J., and to fund mask-making facilities,” he says.

Another streetwear favorite is this one from Bianca Chandon, founded by pro skateboarder Alex Olson. With the word “Lover” in large letters across the mouth, “I feel like it’s an outward projection of positivity, almost like a passive way to make someone’s day, “ says Northeastern student Chris Arciero.

Los Angeles label Johnny Was, known for its vibrant boho textiles, turned its signature prints into face masks that quickly became a brand best-seller. Soumya Jhaveri, a student at Northwestern, says, “They’re supercomfortable, and the gorgeous prints easily dress up a plain outfit.” She likes that the masks have a pocket to hold an additional filter, plus, “for every set bought, they donate one to essential workers, which is really great.”

Photo: Courtesy of MoniQue

“So many students are being unjustly forced to go back to school even though it’s not safe — thus, my back-to-school mask of choice is the blue surgical mask,” says MoniQue Rangell-Onwuegbuzia, an Asian-studies major at Columbia University. But a plain mask is boring, so MoniQue — an illustrator and painter — took markers to it and drew a little Mt. Fuji, inspired by an “affinity for the Asian continent.” “And voilà! Now we’ve got a trendy, unique, and safe back-to-school look.”

“So, I love-love this mask,” says Bebe Landau, 21. “The adjustable straps make it so you can easily tie it around your ears for quick on and off, or tie it around the back of your head for longer wear.” She has two, the lanai pattern and the fruit salad pattern, “both super-versatile and match with literally anything I wear,” she says. And if you want to get matchy, you can buy dresses and tops in the same prints as many of the masks.

When Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear line debuted its face mask, the stock sold out almost instantly. And the second batch did too. But Celia Kelty, 18, was able to get her hands on one of them, and she says it’s one of the best. “The Skims masks are so versatile because, depending on the shade, they can blend perfectly into your face and almost disappear,” she says. “And it’s only $8!” If the Skims mask sells out before you can grab one, Kelty also loves Morgan Lane’s silk masks. “The neutral colors go with any outfit, but the texture can really elevate your look,” she says.

André Angeline, a student at American University, likes the masks from English brand Ahluwalia. “I’m really into how each mask has a unique, multiple pattern scheme,” he says. And though they’re certainly colorful, they manage to match “virtually any outfit,” he adds. “The style reminds me a lot of Vivienne Westwood.”

“To say I’m obsessed with Z Supply masks is an understatement,” says Sophia Cresta, 19. Of all the masks she’s tried, these are the only ones “that offer comfort, style, and safety,” she notes. Cresta says they “provide all-day comfort,” and though she was “initially worried that my style would be compromised with the new norm of mask wearing,” these manage to “enhance my everyday look.” Quaye Meadow, a student at the University of Oregon, says Z Supply masks also happen to be the best for her acne because “they are made of cotton and a jersey fabric that doesn’t hold bacteria.”

Photo: courtesy

Although most of the University of Wisconsin’s classes will be remote this year, student Brooke Wilczewski plans to continue displaying her school pride with a mask printed with the logo of her college. “It was handmade by a woman on Etsy, so I was able to promote a small business, show off my personality and who I am with bright, fun colors to represent my university, while still keeping myself and my community safe,” she says. “This mask has been with me at every occasion, and I love to show it off. It really makes people smile — under their own masks, of course.”

“I found this mask through an article my mom sent me,” explains Ellie Rha, a student at Johns Hopkins University. “And you know the deal with that: hear the notification, read the headline, and turn your phone back off.” But this time, she actually skimmed the article and “ended up finding one of the most breathable but also safest masks.” (And she would know, she adds — her roommate is a chem major at Hopkins who has spent time researching the most effective materials for face masks.) Plus, “it doesn’t break the bank, and who wouldn’t want a baby-pink mask to match the fit?”

Clare V. spent the beginning of the pandemic focused on donating masks to the front lines — but due to an overwhelming demand, the brand started selling them, too. These are made from remnant and dead-stock fabric, lined with chambray, and embroidered with the label’s signature lips logo, and a four-pack costs $35. A favorite of NYU student Kate Glavan’s, she says “they’re extremely comfortable, with versatile, fun prints that stand out with any outfit. I’ve gotten so many compliments and questions about where my masks are from!”

Elise Esquibel, a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, found her favorite mask at MOCA in Los Angeles. “They created a line of masks that pay tribute to the artists in their collection,” she says, including everyone from Andy Warhol to Barbara Kruger to Virgil Abloh. Hers is inspired by Yoko Ono’s “A Piece of Sky.” “I’m really into wearable art, whether it’s painted denim, funky earrings, or a unique face mask,” she explains. “The simplicity of this mask really stands out, and I just feel empowered wearing it.” Plus, she adds, the funds from its collection directly support the museum.

Allana Alcorn, 17, recommends this mask, a riff on Drake’s 2015 album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. “Drake is one of my favorite artists,” she explains, “and I like the possibility of another Drake fan seeing my mask on the street and making a comment, maybe starting a conversation. She notes that in this time of COVID-19, a memorable mask is the best way to make a first impression.

Natalie Schindler, a student at FIT, sourced her mask from Girl of the Earth, a New York label. Designer Ruby Sinclair and a small but mighty team whip up sustainable, small-batch womenswear and accessories — and now masks, too. “She sells handmade, beautiful masks out of fabric from the 1930s-’90s!” Schindler says. “There’s a special place in my heart for vintage apparel!”

During the first week of the face-mask mandate, “my ears became the victim of the tight elastic ear loops,” says Rutgers student Declan Intindola. “In need of some relief, a friend recommended I check out Marine Layer, a brand that emphasizes comfort.” His pal did not steer him wrong. Instead of constricting elastic, Marine Layer’s adjustable, over-the-ear loops are tightened with a clever fabric cinch. The brand also uses lightweight sport fabric that claims to be stretchy, quick-drying, and “extra-breathable.”

“Since we’re wearing masks all the time, why not wear one that embodies your personal style and allows you to express yourself?” asks Mimi Joseph, 19. Her go-to is this blue-and-white pattern by Tanya Taylor. “I love how funky and fun the print is,” she says. “I like wearing whatever I vibe with, but that tends to be trendy pieces that are unique and colorful.”

Lirika Matoshi, perhaps best known for its frothy, fruit-patterned party dresses, introduced a limited run of matching masks — and featuring hand-sewn daisy embroidery, tulle prints, and glitter motifs, these are no ordinary masks. Sophia Jaramillo, 20, says she has plenty of masks, many of which are handmade by family members, but Lirika Matoshi’s rainbow mask is the one she always reaches for. “Its soft, rainbow color palette makes it a perfect match with most of my looks, and the ties add just the perfect amount of daintiness,” she explains, adding that it’s the perfect “finishing touch” to any outfit.

These masks by Dippin’ Daisy are uniquely breathable and washable, according to University of Michigan student Julia Gagliano, because they’re made from bathing suit material. She has the sunshine eyelet version, but they “come in tons of different designs” — more than 60, in fact — and they’re “super-easy to clean and quick to dry.” The best part, she adds, is that the company donates a mask to a first responder for each one purchased.

“I have problem skin, and wearing a mask has had quite the impact on my skin breathing and my pores being clogged — especially wearing the same mask every day,” says FIT student Kate Mooney. “For this upcoming semester in NYC, I bought silk masks with disposable filters inside.” Made by a company called Claire and Clara, they’re cotton on the inside and 100% satin on the outside, Kate says. “When you need to wash them, you just put it right into the washing machine, and they can be put in the dryer as well and fit the same. 10/10 would recommend!”

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The Best Masks, According to Cool Teens