Masks are back, like it or not, while for travelers they never went away. All flights, and in most places any public transport, requires them, and so do many destinations both domestically and abroad, especially indoors. Even where they are not required, they are a very good idea even for those vaccinated, with increasing numbers of so called “breakthrough” infections, along with the social responsibility to protect the young and immunocompromised. For those who are unvaccinated and putting themselves and others at high risk, mask wearing in all public places should be a moral requirement where it is not regulatory one.
The bottom line is that mask usage does not look to be ending anytime soon, at least to varying degrees and particularly for travel. So, if you have to wear a mask, it might as well be the best in terms of doing its intended job, which means both comfort and protection. This is a topic I wrote a lot about early in the pandemic when everyone needed to buy masks, often for the first time ever, and since then I have done a fair amount of traveling and a lot of masking and have some critical observations and tips to offer.
For starters, I prefer reusable fabric masks over paper ones, mainly because it is still hard to know what you are really getting with paper masks. The inexpensive hospital style rectangular ones are easy to obtain mainly because they don’t offer as much protection as the higher filtration in N95 and KN 95 masks. As a result, many people have doubled up, and even medical authorities have recommended this strategy of one mask over another. But you can get the same benefit from a single multilayer reusable mask, without the waste and added expense. The ear bands on paper masks are also typically the least comfortable out there, which is a concern on long trips.
As for the N95 and KN95 masks, they are great when they are real, but with so much fraud you have no idea, and a fake mask that gives you the peace of mind to do more things and travel more may be putting you at additional risk. Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Homeland Security Investigations agents intercepted a shipment of more than 400,000 fake N95 masks. This was not the first time.
Selecting the right mask for travel is more important than for going to the grocery store or other daily tasks, simply because the amount of time you need to wear it is much longer. Flying to Europe on a non-stop typically means two hours in the airport beforehand, seven to twelve on the plane and maybe another hour to clear customs and get your baggage, all while masked. Any flights, domestic or international, with airport connections makes this masked period considerably longer. So, comfort becomes much more of an issue and one simple tip I have learned the hard ways is that masks that loop around the ears (vertically) become much more irritating than those that loop around the back of your head (horizontally) as the hours drag on. The skin behind the ears is the first to become annoyingly irritated, so I would mostly avoid over the ear masks for flying, though they can be great for exploring the destination once you arrive.
I’ve also been disappointed in most cloth masks with removable filters, something I originally championed because the choice of filters includes many more reliably HEPA certified and often domestically or European produced options than in disposable masks. But while the theory is great, in practice many come up short with physical design flaws where the filter does not stay in place, folding up on itself or sliding down. Once the filter insert slips below your nose, the result is similar to all those people you see inanely wearing a mask that does not cover their nose, defeating the purpose. Making matters worse, the filters are often pricy and hard to put in the mask in the first place. But multi-layer with high filtration is the best way to go, as long as it all stays together.
Dr. Ruth L. Bush, associate dean of medical education and a professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine, told TODAY.com. “Research has shown that some loosely-woven masks only block 10-20% of particles, but by adding one or more layers of filter material, higher percentages of particles could be blocked.”
So here are my personal favorites, borne of experience and protective features.
Kitsbow Wake ProTech: This is my overall favorite and most used mask, and I have several of them. A reusable, washable model with a permanent filter built into it, this was developed as a partnership between North Carolina-based cycling apparel specialist Kitsbow and medical professionals at nearby Wake Forest University. Generally, double or triple layer masks are more effective than a single layer, but this has four-layer construction, including two internal permanent filtering layers. As a result, it is substantial and heavier duty than many other models and after repeated washings it still looks new, while other I’ve tried have warped, wrinkled or have wires poking through. I still use the first one I got over a year ago all the time. It comes in several sizes and is an oversized rectangle, bigger than most, so you get complete coverage that doesn’t slip, there’s a moldable strip in the nose area to customize fit, and it works well with glasses. Two easily adjustable horizonal around the head straps with toggles keep the ProTech comfortable on even the longest trips ($30). This is my flying choice. A few months after it was released, Kitsbow put out a merino wool version which is lighter and more breathable with the same features at the same price.
är Nanofilter Masks: This is an exception that solves the problems many other masks with replaceable paper filters have. Based in Prague, är uses a disposable EU-made three-layer nano filter insert, which blocks up to 99.8% of particulates. In addition, the mask exterior is treated with Swedish made ViralOff, an antimicrobial treatment that reduces 99% of viruses on the surface within two hours. This is important because you often touch the outside of your own mask with hands that may not have been cleaned recently enough. The front is also treated with Eco Aqua Zero, which makes the exterior water repellent and causes water to bead up and roll off, and while many mask buyers don’t consider what it is like to wear one in the rain, you may have to at some point. The masks are light and comfortable, but do use around the ear loops, though they have the nice addition of a locking toggle on each for better fit.
My favorite thing that sets the är masks apart from similar high-filtration models is that the filter is a single fitted piece made in sizes and shapes to mirror the mask itself, attaching to the inside panel via three hook and loop strips, rather than a pocket. It fits perfectly, stays in place, is super easy to insert, remove and replace and does not shift or crumple up. In addition, the filter itself has an embedded aluminum strip in the nosepiece to match the perfect close fit of the mask, and the disposable filters are reusable rather than single use – each can be used for up to two weeks. The one caveat is that the fit is more precise and unforgiving, and it is vital to get the right size for your face. They come in three sizes ($30 but currently on sale for $15). It’s important to note that är makes two versions, with and without an external exhalation valve, a feature most airlines prohibit.
Inex Better Mask: This is the most comfortable premium model I’ve found, and definitely the most comfortable style with ear loops. Los Angeles-based Inex Gear designed The Better Mask in collaboration with Academy Award-nominated costume designer Luis Sequeira (The Shape Of Water), and it features a deep scalloped nose bridge so you can more easily see the wearer’s expression. The shaped chin cup makes for a tight seal, and it has an embedded nanofiber permanent filter layer that spans the entire mask and is washable and reusable for daily wear – without having to remove or replace the filter. The nanofiber is sourced in Europe from a manufacturer that states it is 98% effective and the mask has been treated with Swiss HeiQ V-Block antimicrobial technology. It has locking toggles on each ear loop for a highly adjustable, secure and comfortable fit, and comes in three sizes (suitable for kids 5 years and older) and four colors. ($33). But the biggest difference is that it is very light, comfy and breathable.