This past March, we updated this face mask buying guide with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including new science on the increased effectiveness of double-masking. Vaccinations had just started rolling out, and we were on the verge of what many hoped would be a “return to normal,” only for the public to be swiftly reminded that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, continues to circulate, mutate, and claim lives.
The omicron variant is the latest variant of concern, following late-summer and early-winter surges in US COVID cases spurred by the highly contagious delta variant. Early studies of omicron indicate that it’s even more transmissible—and potentially more likely to cause breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. The Biden administration has released new plans to combat rising infections and the emergent omicron variant. Naturally, proper masking is key.
Heading into the holidays with all of this in mind—and with generally improved conditions in the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE)—we thought now would be a good time for a booster on mask knowledge. Our newly updated mask guide includes information on how to double-mask effectively, how to reuse KN95 and N95 masks safely, how to maximize a surgical mask’s effectiveness, how to choose and clean great cloth masks, and more. Below are our latest picks based on product availability and long-term testing.
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The TL;DR version
- Our favorite N95 mask: The supply shortage on medical masks has lessened, making nonmedical N95 masks sensible and highly effective options for the general public, particularly people at high risk of illness. Of the various models we’ve tested, we like Fangtian’s N95 face masks. They fit like a glove, they’re legitimately made and certified, and they’re available at reasonable prices.
- A good KN95 mask: Alternatively, Arun’s KN95 masks have been tested to the same filtration standard of N95s and offer easier use for lower-risk situations. There’s a ton of KN95s on the market that can vary in areas other than filtration, so we picked one with a strong nose wire and more form-fitting construction.
- Another worthy option: The new American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard for filtration and breathability in nonmedical masks led us to a great KN95 alternative in 3M’s Advanced Filtering Face Mask. It has a high filtration efficacy, and it’s a better choice for smaller faces than our KN95 pick.
- Our favorite cloth mask: Kenneth Cole’s Woven Face Mask remains our top pick for an everyday cloth mask. It has all the properties of a good cloth mask, according to CDC and WHO guidelines. With multilayer construction (including a middle filter layer), a nose wire, and adjustable ear loops, it checks all the boxes and achieves a decent fit. It is machine-washable in hot water.
- Alternative cloth masks we like: If you don’t mind swapping out a replaceable filter, the Outdoor Research Face Mask Kit offers the best fit of all the masks we’ve tested, with a longer, sturdier nose wire and a shape that wraps around the chin and cheeks to close up air gaps. It requires disposable filters if you wear it alone, but the snug fit also makes it our top pick for double-masking. Kitsbow’s Reusable Face Mask with HEPA Type Filter, meanwhile, is a good alternative with many of the same strengths and two more size options. It uses head straps instead of ear loops, though, which can be cumbersome in situations where you want to remove your mask from time to time.
- A great mask for working out: If you’re interested in a mask you can wear while exercising, the UA Sportsmask by Under Armour has all the layers you need while still being breathable, comfortable, and moisture-wicking. It won’t get in the way, relatively speaking, while you’re breathing heavily.
- More accessible options for kids and those hard of hearing: We’ve also found some homemade masks from Etsy that integrate proper layering and come with kid-friendly designs or clear windows for lip-reading.
- Useful mask accessories: Whether you’re using disposable medical masks or a cloth option, cord locks or a mask-fitting brace can aid your fit and the filtration efficacy of your mask.
Our picks for N95, KN95, surgical, and ASTM-certified masks
With the crisis-level global mask shortage back from the brink, nonsurgical N95 masks are no longer emergency-approved for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration. As former CDC Director Tom Frieden told The Washington Post, it was never entirely clear if buying N95 masks from retailers took away supply from health care professionals, although he cautioned that it might. At this point, we can be more confident that it won’t: medical institutions are seeing replenished stock of surgical N95 masks, which they’re instructed to use.
Nonsurgical N95s are available for the public to purchase and provide those at high risk of developing severe illness with the highest level of protection possible. KN95s tested to the same filtration standard are the next best thing, but they lack the same fit standards, incorporating ear loops rather than tighter-fitting head straps, for example. Our ASTM-certified picks (which similarly use ear loops) also achieved greater than 95 percent filtration in certified testing, and right now, they’re generally easier to purchase than KN95s. One of our picks by 3M can be picked up at your local Target, for instance.
Our favorite N95 mask
Fangtian N95 Respirator Face Mask
Still, finding legitimate, NIOSH-approved N95 masks at reasonable prices can be tough. Suzhou Fangtian’s N95 masks first came to our attention early in 2021 as one of the few reasonably priced N95 masks available for purchase at the time. Apart from the approachable cost, they also stood out for being fully certified NIOSH-approved N95 masks. Referencing both NIOSH’s own approved list of N95 manufacturers and models and the FDA’s list of known counterfeits, we can say that these are solid, legitimate N95 masks. The third-party seller doling out the masks has a 99 percent positive feedback rating on Amazon after more than 80,000 lifetime reviews.
Being N95s, the Fangtian masks use head straps as opposed to ear loops, and they provide a snug fit for medium to large face sizes. This fold-flat “duckbill” style makes for easy storage and an excellent fit for a wide variety of facial contours, thereby minimizing unfiltered airflow. The nose wire is malleable yet sturdy, and it has a thin foam lining along the inside of the mask for better comfort along the nose bridge. This also helps to stop the gapping that often occurs with masks around the nose area. The end result is a glove-like fit around the face with no noticeable leaks.
These masks are a particularly great deal now at $13 for a pack of 10, down from $40 when we first recommended them, thanks to increased PPE supplies.
A great KN95 mask
KN95 Respirator Face Mask
KN95 masks have often been called the Chinese equivalent of N95s. Although filtration efficacy may be similar, fit, durability, and many other factors separate the two mask types. Still, KN95s can be a worthy alternative for public use, since the FDA no longer authorizes their use in health care settings.
For the public, they’re a great alternative to the more fixed nature of N95s, as their ear loops make them much easier to take on and off than the head straps of an N95 allow. Even better, they’re much lower on the list of masks that could be called on again for emergency use in health care settings. KN95s from various manufacturers have been tested by NIOSH for filtration efficacy; the main challenge is finding quality KN95s to buy.
Dongguan Arun’s KN95s have been on our list since the prior update to this guide in March. Not only is their nose wire sturdier than those of most other KN95s we’ve tested, but the shape and less rigid construction of the mask itself allows for a better seal than most competing options. Arun’s masks were previously tested and included in the FDA’s (now revoked) emergency-approved non-NIOSH respirators for health care workers. The tests showed a maximum filtration efficacy of 100 percent and a minimum of 95.22 for this model.
The fit on these tends to favor somewhat larger face types, so if you’re on the smaller side, our pick for an ASTM-certified disposable mask might suit you better while offering the same protective properties.
A high-filtration ASTM-certified mask
3M Advanced Face Filtering Mask
Among the masks tested to the new ASTM F3502-21 Standard for Barrier Face Coverings, 3M’s Advanced Face Filtering Mask rises to the top for its 99 percent particulate-filtration efficiency. It’s important to remember that, unlike N95s that are tested for leakage and fit, ASTM’s F3502 standard tests only for the filter materials’ efficacy and breathability. Thus, the 99 percent figure isn’t representative of real-world use as an N95 mask’s minimum filtration measurement of 95 percent (which does account for differential pressure, fit, leakage, and more). Furthermore, the filtration tests themselves differ slightly, so this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, the new ASTM standard provides useful results for efficacy in blocking submicron particulates, the figures of which are listed on the CDC’s website.
Like KN95s, 3M’s mask uses ear loops rather than head straps. Each mask includes a plastic hook that can hold the ear loops together behind your head to create a similar fit to a head strap-equipped mask, however. I preferred wearing mine that way as it enhanced the mask’s seal around my face. Compared to N95s that use head straps to achieve a better fit, this hook is much easier to undo and redo when I’m in situations where easier removal is needed.
The nose wire is sturdy and malleable, although the angle at which it bends is rather sharp. It may take a bit of molding to achieve an ideal fit along the nose bridge. These masks aren’t a great choice for larger face sizes, either, but they should fit well on small to medium face types.
ASTM-certified, US-made surgical masks (with a mask brace)
Armbrust Better Mask High Filtration System
Armbrust’s Better Mask High Filtration System helps you to use a single surgical mask at its highest efficacy. Generally, it’s recommended to use a surgical mask in tandem with a more form-fitting cloth mask over it (see our section on double-masking below). This improves fit and adds another layer of protection from liquids. But using a surgical mask with a mask fitter is another option for creating a tight seal and bolstering surgical masks’ filtration properties.
Manufactured at and sold from the company’s Texas-based facility, Armbrust’s system comes with 30 masks and one mask fitter made by Fix the Mask, another US-based manufacturer. Surgical masks use non-woven, hydrophobic materials that have been lauded for their filtration efficacy, and the Armbrust system is no exception. Their masks were able to achieve 97 percent filtration of particulates under 1 micron, according to ASTM F3502-21 results.
https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/12/mask-up-how-to-choose-and-maintain-the-best-masks-for-use-against-covid-19/ 10 Best Face Masks For COVID-19: N95, Cloth, Disposable, and the Science