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The Very Best Masks to Wear on an Airplane

Photo: FilippoBacci/Getty Images

Though many of the pandemic’s early travel restrictions have been dropped, there is still a risk of contracting COVID-19 in crowded indoor spaces like airports and planes. The CDC still recommends masks for all people in areas of the U.S. that are deemed high risk and for anyone who is immunocompromised or unvaccinated. And while New York City mayor Eric Adams has put an end to most COVID restrictions, many health experts believe masking is an important tool in protecting yourself and others from the highly contagious BA.2.12.1 subvariant that is spreading quickly throughout the U.S.

Currently, most airlines do not require masks for staff or travelers, except on flights into countries with mandates still in place. Regardless, airports remain a meeting point for travelers from all over the world, so wearing quality masks that offer high filtration — such as KN95, KF94, and N95 respirators — can be a critical step in reducing the spread of this most recent subvariant.

If you’re not up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC recommends delaying travel until you are, but if you have to fly anyway, you should take extra precautions. That includes social distancing whenever possible, avoiding eating or drinking in poorly ventilated or crowded areas, and wearing a high-filtration mask. According to Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the ventilation in airplanes is actually pretty good, despite the length of time you spend inside, and if everyone is wearing a mask, that lowers the risk even more. But, he says, “if the person sitting next to you happens to have an asymptomatic case of COVID and you’re at high risk, then that’s very dangerous.” That’s why Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University who co-authored a study on the efficiency of various mask materials, emphasizes the importance of getting vaccinated and getting your booster shot. “Your risk is so much lower. If you look at who needs to be admitted into hospitals, more than 90 percent or maybe even 95 percent are people who haven’t been vaccinated,” he says.

To find out which masks are best to wear both on the plane and at the gate, we spoke with Cui, Glatt, and nine other experts. Dr. Waleed Javaid, the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, says he gets this question all the time. “Everybody asks me, should we really have an N95? Should we have this and that?” His answer: “You should have whichever mask you’re going to keep wearing.” And Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health, advises wearing a KN95, KF94, or an N95 when flying, whether you are up to date on your COVID-19 vaccine or not. “I know people personally who have gotten sick while traveling even after they were fully vaccinated,” she says, noting that if you are traveling to or from an area of the world where COVID-19 is spreading more rapidly, you should be extra careful. But if you can’t get your hands on a high-filtration mask before you leave, Aaron Collins, a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science who has spent the pandemic testing hundreds of masks he purchased online, suggests double-masking as an alternative: “It’s better than a cloth mask or surgical mask alone but not the ‘best’ solution,” he says.

Best N95 Best KN95 | Best KF94  | Best N95 for frequent flyers | Best colorful KN95 | Best KN95 for kids | Best KF94 for kids | Best mask for preschoolers 

What we’re looking for

Authenticity: Some masks are more prone to counterfeiting than others, but a good way to know whether you are getting legitimate KF94s is by checking that they are indeed made in South Korea. And a good way to vet an N95 mask is to check for NIOSH approval and other labels that ensure they’ve been tested to meet specific standards. Those labels are ASTM F3502, Workplace Performance, Workplace Performance Plus, and the code “TC-84A” followed by four more digits. Where things get sticky is with KN95 masks. Michael Chang, an M.D. and assistant professor of pediatrics with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, Houston, says that at this point, he suspects most KN95s are fakes since “there is no regulatory agency that ensures a manufacturer actually meets the KN95 standard.” As a general rule of thumb, both Chang and Collins agree that the best way to avoid fakes is to buy exclusively from reputable sources. “Don’t buy random brands from Amazon or eBay,” Collins says. “My recommendation is ProjectN95BeHealthyUSAKollecteUSA, or, if using Amazon, verify that you are purchasing from the brand’s ‘official’ store.”

Otherwise, check for labeling that says the mask is made from at least two layers of nonwoven polypropylene plus a melt-blown inner-filter layer. The random arrangement of fibers in nonwoven materials does a better job at filtering tiny particles, like bacteria and viruses, than traditional woven fabrics like cotton. And ideally, they should be independently tested by a third party to ensure proper filtration. In addition, legitimate masks should come in tamper-evident packaging and should be marked with an expiration date. The same applies to surgical masks, though, Collins says he would skip them if you have access to N95s, KN95s, or KF94s because the standards for surgical masks “are much looser, and the quality of them is all over the place.”

Fit: Counterfeit masks aside, the best masks are the ones that fit your face the best, and features that improve the fit of a mask such as adjustable ear-loops and a flexible nose wire can also improve its filtration efficiency. This is particularly true for children who range in size, even across age groups. To ensure you are getting the most protection out of your mask, Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, says it should fit snugly, covering your nose and mouth, and should fit below your chin. Any gaps around the edges will allow potential viral droplets to enter or escape. You may have to try a few before finding your perfect fit, but if you end up buying a pack of masks that are too big, Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a family medicine specialist in New York City, 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.)

Comfort: In addition to fitting well, Chang says masks need to be comfortable and easy to breathe through. You want a mask with some resistance to catch tiny airborne particles, but not so much resistance that it forces the air to find another way in or out — usually around the sides. Lastly, if you are buying masks for children, know that they will have strong opinions about which masks they want to wear. The factors that drive those opinions can involve colors, patterns, how the ear loops feel on the backs of their ears, or how soft the interior is against their face. If there is a high-quality mask that they willingly put on for a plane ride or school trip, that mask is probably the best. Dr. Sten Vermund, a pediatrician, infectious-disease epidemiologist, and dean of the Yale School of Public Health, says that making mask use fun and gamelike will increase the chances of children cooperating, especially younger children.

Availability: Though stock seems to have leveled out with the relaxing of mask mandates, oftentimes the highest-filtration masks with the most recommendations (from Collins and other experts) are the same ones that sell out first. So to make sure you have one to wear when you need it, we’re prioritizing masks that are consistently in stock since an out-of-stock mask can’t help protect you or your family.

Best N95 mask

Early on in the pandemic, as hospitals were getting slammed with COVID patients, N95 masks were in tragically short supply. So public-health experts discouraged non-health-care workers from buying them. But now, they are much more readily available to the general public. And many American companies have started making NIOSH-approved N95s in soft foldable shapes that are much more comfortable than the stiff cup styles.

This one from Protective Health Gear is made in Patterson, New Jersey, which helps them avoid most potential supply chain disruptions and ensures that each mask meets undergoes the strictest quality checks. Each one comes individually wrapped and features the NIOSH label, the brand’s logo, the TC-84A label, and even the mask’s specific lot number. If you’re looking for a comfortable NIOSH-approved N95 to wear on the plane, this is the first one I would recommend. Because it is a bifold style mask, it fits and feels similar to a KN95. But in addition to a soft inner layer and nose wire, it also features foam nose padding to further seal any gaps and prevent air from escaping or getting in. As for the head straps, they are soft and stretchy but don’t feel flimsy. It’s the mask I would reach for if I were a doctor or if I was going to an indoor concert at the height of a spike in infections.

Best KN95 mask

Powecom KN95 masks were on the FDA’s list of approved face masks for health-care professionals when that list was necessary. Like other KN95 masks, this one claims to filter out 95 percent of small particles. Indeed, Collins has tested the kid-size Powecom masks and found that they have a filtration efficiency of 97.3 percent. In September of 2020, I bought them for my fiancé, Jacob Cohen, to wear while teaching in person. He teaches fourth grade in Brooklyn and has tried a lot of KN95’s over the last two years. They are one of his favorite masks for work, and he says that, in addition to making him feel safe in the classroom before vaccines were available, they fit more snugly than most of the other KN95’s he has tried, and they don’t move when he is talking. De-Lin says the fit of KN95s is extremely 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.” I have worn these masks on the subway, to the office, at museums, on Metro-North, at the airport, and to countless doctor’s appointments, and find them to be soft on the inside and a good fit for my face shape. They meet De-Lin’s fit requirement, collapsing around the cheeks when you breathe. When worn with my glasses, they fog less than other masks I have tried.

Best KF94 mask

BOTN KF94 Large/Black
$24 for 10
$24 for 10

KF94 masks are a great option for people who have trouble finding a good KN95 fit. They open up a bit like an envelope and sit slightly off the face, giving you more room to talk and breathe. In addition to being manufactured in South Korea and approved by the KFDA, these BOTN KF94 masks are featured on Collins’s public Google doc containing filtration results for the masks he has tested. In his testing, he found them to have a filtration efficiency of 99.2 percent. Like the LG Airwasher masks favored by Strategist senior vice-president of e-commerce Camilla Cho, BOTN masks come with special adjustable ear loops. Simply pull on the little front loops to adjust the tightness around your ears and cheeks. Each mask is made with four layers of electrostatic nonwoven material, including a melt-blown filter layer. They come individually packaged in a sealed tamperproof sleeve and the brand’s logo is printed on the front of each mask. Upon testing them, I noticed how light the masks are, far lighter than a Powecom KN95 or even other KF94s I have tried. So while Powecom’s fit my face shape a little better, these will probably become my favorite spring and summer masks. The inner layer is comfortable against my skin, but I would describe it as smooth rather than soft, another reason why I think this would be a great warm-weather mask.

Best N95 mask for frequent flyers

These Kimberly-Clark N95 masks are also a lot softer than the traditional cup-shaped N95s, making them less likely to dig into your cheeks and easier to wear for long periods of time. They’re also a favorite of Intelligencer editor Chas Danner, who says that despite looking “totally ridiculous,” the mask is super-secure. Though he originally bought them for traveling, he now wears one anytime he goes somewhere particularly risky, including waiting in line for hours to get a PCR test during the Omicron wave. The beak-shaped style of mask has also become popular with restaurant workers because of how comfortable it is for long periods of time.

When he tested these masks, Collins found that they filter out 97 percent of airborne particles. “The head straps are really comfortable, and I’ve gotten such a good seal on them I’ve had condensation pool inside the mask. I felt like I was in Dune,” he says. While most other masks come in packs of five or ten, you have to buy 5o to get these. Still, at the current sale price that puts them at about a dollar a mask. So if you know you’ll eventually wear all 50, it’s a very good deal.

Best colorful KN95 mask

Despite fewer people wearing masks in New York City, I have continued to mask up indoors as much as possible. If I’m quickly popping into a café or restaurant to order food, I’ll wear an Evolve Together surgical-style mask. For trips on the subway, long shifts at the co-op, or doctor visits, I wear a tighter-fitting KN95 mask from Kaze. These colorful and adjustable masks have quickly become my favorite for higher-risk situations, because they make me feel cute while giving me peace of mind. The brand sells its KN95 masks in color-palette sets ranging from popping hues with contrasting ear loops to desert neutrals, plain black and white, and pretty pastels. The masks are beloved by a large swath of celebrities — including Justin and Hailey Bieber, Dua Lipa, Cardi B, and Offset. The wide range of colors makes it easy to match your mask to your outfit.

Looks aside, Kaze masks are made of five layers of nonwoven material — including a melt-blown filter layer. They have been tested by Nelson Labs and certified by the Swiss lab SGS. The masks have little silicone toggles on the ear loops that make adjusting the fit super easy and a foam nose pad that helps create a tight seal. They are comparable to Powecom ma