Behind the Mask

What are the best disposable face masks?


Although nearly half of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it unfortunately looks like we aren’t done with wearing masks quite yet. Cases are rising again as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads across the country, leading the CDC to reverse its guidance and again recommend masks for all people — regardless of vaccination status — in areas with a high number of COVID cases, like Los Angeles. Some state leaders, like New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, are urging vaccinated people to start wearing masks indoors again, too. Plus, masks are still required on most modes of public transportation (including New York City subways and any interstate travel, like airplanes and trains).

So even if you’re fully vaccinated, you’ll likely run into situations in which masks are strongly recommended, if not required. Which means unfortunately we’ll all need to have some masks on hand. While not as sustainable as reusable cloth masks, disposable masks are also a good option — especially if you find the right ones.

The very best disposable face 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. Early in the pandemic, the CDC did not recommend that the public buy these masks in order to ensure a steady supply for health-care workers, but those restrictions have relaxed slightly now that such masks are more regularly available. So while it’s still not a good idea to hoard N95 or medical masks, you can feel better keeping 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.

The imported KN95 mask, considered the Chinese-made equivalent to the N95, is also a popular disposable option. Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University who co-authored a study on the efficiency of various mask materials, says that, while the certification processes for KN95 and N95 masks are “nearly identical,” many of the KN95 masks on the market today are counterfeit. There’s no way for you to tell an authentic mask from a fake, but fortunately Cui and his lab have found that even counterfeit KN95 masks can have a filtration efficiency of 75 to 80 percent. (Cui’s company, 4C Air, sells a KN95 mask that his research has shown can filter 95 percent of small particles.) The CDC has also tested a variety of KN95 masks, and you can see those results here.

Most of the rest of what you’ll see are pleated disposable masks. Florida Atlantic University engineering professor Siddhartha Verma, lead author of a recent study on the efficiency of different mask materials, says the quality of these masks varies. At the start of the pandemic, consumers were mostly on their own in figuring out which ones offer the best protection. The CDC now says there are certain labels you can look for on masks that ensure they’ve been tested to meet specific standards. These labels are ASTM F3502, Workplace Performance, and Workplace Performance Plus. Otherwise, check for labeling that says the mask is made from “multiple layers of nonwoven material.”.....

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