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The Best Masks to Wear on an Airplane

Photo: Adene Sanchez/Getty Images

According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can now travel with little risk of contracting COVID-19 and no longer have to quarantine on arrival as long as they have no symptoms. That’s great news for anyone who wants to travel to meet a new grandchild or give a parent a hug after a year of being separated, but it does come with a few caveats: You should still avoid unnecessary travel and you still have to wear a mask on the plane and in the airport. “Getting vaccinated does drastically lower your risk of getting COVID, but does not completely remove it,” says Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist, epidemiologist, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. This is because we still haven’t achieved herd immunity status (the US is currently just over 25 percent vaccinated and would need to reach 75 to 80 percent to get to herd immunity) and there are still COVID-19 variants that may be more resistant to the current vaccines.

If you’re not fully vaccinated, but you have to fly anyway, you should take even more precautions to avoid becoming infected or infecting the people around you. That includes social distancing whenever possible, avoiding eating or drinking in poorly ventilated or crowded areas, wearing a mask (or two), and possibly even a face shield.

To find out which masks are best to wear both on the plane and at the gate, we spoke with four experts: Kullar; Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health; Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America; and Dr. Waleed Javaid, the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown. Javaid 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.” According to all of the doctors we spoke to, that mask should have multiple layers and be comfortable enough that you can breathe, and you won’t be tempted to take it off.

Face masks for double masking

Glatt says unvaccinated people with underlying conditions are at the highest risk. He suggests they double mask and consider wearing eye protection as well, like goggles or a face shield. “The plane itself isn’t that much of a risk,” he says. We know that the ventilation in an airplane is actually pretty good despite the length of time you spend inside, and if everyone is wearing a mask it lowers the risk even more. But, he says, “if the person sitting next to you happens to be an asymptomatic case of COVID, and you’re at high risk, then that’s very dangerous.”

Javaid agrees, as does Kullar, who adds that “a surgical mask beneath a cloth mask” is a good idea for vaccinated people, too. She also recommends vaccinated people consider a face shield, as there is a possibility of the virus entering through the eyes.

These masks from MOCACARE are EUA-certified by the FDA, meaning, while they are not medical grade, they are certified for emergency medical use during the COVID-19 public-health emergency. They have three non-woven fabric layers including a middle filter layer made of melt-blown non-woven fabric.

Six Strategist staffers including this author are fans of and regularly wear these surgical-style masks from Evolve Together. Aside from being nice looking, they are lightweight, breathable, and soft against the face. Plus they’re independently tested and certified medical-grade type IIR by SGS, a world leader in consumer product testing. Each mask has three layers: a water-resistant outer layer, a melt-blown center, and a moisture-absorbing inner layer.

Kullar specifically recommends the bamboo masks from Nxtstop because they are double layered, with a metal piece that can be bent over the bridge of the nose to create a seal.

She also recommends these triple-layered masks because they come with a permanent inner filter and offer a great fit.

Medical-Grade Masks

Parikh advises wearing a medical-grade mask like a KN95, KF94, or an N95 when flying, whether you are fully vaccinated 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 the virus is out of control you should be extra careful. As Glatt points out, “traveling to Brazil comes with different risks than traveling to Buffalo, for example. People should take appropriate precautions.”

These two masks were tested (and are still worn) by Strategist staffers for our article about the best disposable masks.

This N95 from American brand Protective Healthcare is NIOSH-approved. Though the CDC has previously said we should reserve N95s for health-care workers, we think buying these is a good idea since the company originally had a hard time selling them (even to hospitals) because of the protections many online retailers have put in place to try to block counterfeit sellers.

Strategist editor Maxine Builder hasn’t gotten on a plane yet, but she already bought this NIOSH-approved N95 face mask for the trip she has planned for August with her dad. She says that at the time she bought it she wasn’t sure if she’d be vaccinated or not, so she was searching for a face mask with excellent filtration, “like a KN95, but that was still comfortable to wear for hours on end and wouldn’t collapse, like paper masks sometimes do after long-term wear.” Builder’s boyfriend’s sister — a vascular surgeon who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable face masks — tipped her off to this Envo mask that’s different from other N95s thanks to its gel cushion that creates a super-tight seal and doesn’t rub against the face. “I tested it at home and the over-the-head strap is way more comfortable than hooking something over my ears, especially if I have over-the-ear headphones on,” she says. It is important to note that the Envo mask has a one-way exhalation valve that would allow COVID particles to escape, but the company now ships all of its masks with a free plug that blocks the valve and solves this problem. So be sure to read the instructions and add the plug before leaving for the airport. In addition to the valve plug, it also comes with a reusable case and individually packed filters, which are easy to replace and can be thrown in a carry-on.

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The Best Masks to Wear on an Airplane