I’ve often written about how Beijingers may need a good filtration mask on the really bad days here, but it’s difficult to find good ones. I’ve usually recommended any official N95 mask, and I consider the 3M company to be the most professional company for these. Unfortunately, they are much more geared for construction teams and such, and therefore are not very consumer-friendly. They just aren’t cool looking, and it’s a serious hindrance to get people to wear them. Plus, it’s almost impossible to find kids versions. So what’s out there that works, is inexpensive, and passes a teenager’s coolness test?
In my above post’s comments, a reader mentioned Totobobo masks as a nice option, but I’ve never seen them here. A couple weeks ago the company contacted me from Singapore and asked me to evaluate their masks. They have a few models for adults and kids, with differing levels of filtration from 92 to 96%. While technically the 92 and 94 would be less than official 95% filtration that the N95 masks offer, the best test is always a real world scenario, as a proper snug fit around the edges is crucial. And since this blog is an evidence-based blog, there actually is one well-designed study published, a randomized controlled trial of Totobobo versus a proper N95 mask. Here is their conclusion:
The median (interquartile range) reduction in airborne particle counts was significantly higher [193-fold (145-200)] for N95 masks than for Totobobo masks [135-fold (83-184)] (P<0.05). There was no statistically significant difference between the proportion of subjects achieving a reduction of > or =100-fold between N95 (19/22) and Totobobo (16/22) masks. We conclude that use of the Totobobo mask without fit testing cannot be recommended, but its performance is sufficiently promising to warrant further investigation.
Notice how they cannot officially recommend without fit-testing, which is more of a construction-team or pandemic issue. But in the real world, no one does fit testing, of course. We just buy and put on. So with those real-world results above, the mask reduced particles 135-fold. Again, the N95 is better, but 135-fold improvement is actually very impressive, and a lot better than some other reviewed (unnamed) cycling masks — here’s a reprint of a great graph that I mentioned in my N95 mask post:
Of course this is only one good study, but it’s one study more than many other consumer masks seem to have.
Real World Testing
I tried it around town for a bit, and the overall comfort is good. It definitely is less awkward-looking than the typical N95 with exhalation valves. I was pleasantly surprised with the seal and that my glasses didn’t fog up, although I got those mask lines on my face that other masks also cause. It’s relatively easy to keep on, with straps either behind the ear or behind the head (which always provides a closer fit).
I didn’t do any fancy techinical testing with it, but on a bad, smelly day I put on the mask and instantly could no longer smell that pollution.
Also, there are a few other real-world advantages:
- It’s not totally uncool-looking
- It’s reusable and washable, and it’s easy to carry in a pouch (provided by them)
- There are kids sizes
- You can quickly cut the mask to fit better
- The masks and filter refills are very reasonably priced
My Bottom Line
Totobobo didn’t pay me anything, and I get no income from them for this mention. I’m simply trying to find well-researched options to protect myself and anyone else from Beijing’s air pollution, and I’d be more than happy to review other masks as well and to publish the results. Last year I tried to find good studies on other brands, including Respro, but I found no well-designed studies on other masks. Does anyone have such information?
I think Totobobo is a good and affordable option for people. And a 135-fold drop in pollution is very impressive; even on an emergency day with the AQI over 500, the mask would bring your air to WHO-safe levels. Don’t forget that the gold standard remains an N95 mask, which are now available at almost all local markets such as Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet.
It seems that Totobobo currently needs to be ordered from their website and shipped from Singapore. Perhaps the good folks at World Health Store or Beijing Home Delivery could start reselling them here?
And in the future, I think some smart entrepeneur should jump on this opportunity and use the proper N95 filters to make a consumer line for kids and adults. It’s not hard at all; just find out whatever Chinese factory is making the filters, and have them print a bunch of sizes, with cool designs and some basic colors. After all, we already know that Beijingers have no problem all winter with colorful kouzhao (口罩) masks — why not make them useful as well?