Update November 2014: After new data in 2014 (please read my personal mask test and a review of three independent tests of masks) I now only strongly recommend truly N95-certified masks such as 3M, and Vogmask as second choice (KN95 certification in June 2014).
What’s the best air pollution mask for China? There are quite a few brands out there, and you now can find them at convenience stores and pharmacies. But which ones really work? Many masks have proven that their material is over 99% effective in blocking PM2.5, which is an important first step. But this test is not nearly as important as real world test results, called quantitative fit tests. Even a great fabric is useless if the mask’s fit isn’t snug on your face, and any air leaking around the edges makes your mask worthless, no matter how expensive or trendy it is. Since air pollution is a truly serious problem here in China, you really shouldn’t mess around with inadequate masks when there are a handful which have proven both 99% fabric effectiveness and 95% or higher efficiency in fit tests. This article offers my personal and professional opinions of the four best reviewed masks, all with proven results: 3M, Totobobo, Vogmask, and I Can Breathe.
3M N95 Masks
The 3M company has a large range of disposable N95 certified masks which they have made for decades as protective gear for construction and heavy industries worldwide. These 3M masks are considered the gold standard of masks as they have the longest track record by far, and all major research studies have used these in their testing of air pollution. Quite a few models are available here, and some have special exhalation valves, useful during sports or preventing fogging up of eyeglasses. Comfort: These are usually very comfortable on the face. But their straps go behind the head and not around the ears, which is less practical for many users. Air Leaking: There is very little leaking if the metal nose bridge is pinched together just right. Exercising: I found it very comfortable to breathe while biking, especially if the model has an exhalation valve. Fog Factor: I had very little fogging of my glasses with a good seal around the nose Stinky Factor: After a few days these do tend to look grey and haggard Hipness: Not very consumer-friendly, usually with big black writing, bright yellow elastic strap and an imposing exhalation valve Reusable filters: These don’t take replacement filters; each mask can be used for at least a few days until they get dirty or you can’t breathe as easily through it Kid Friendly: They only have one model for younger faces, the 1860S child size. But this isn’t easily found in China. Longevity: Each mask can last at least a few days of use before losing effectiveness Cost: Each mask should be around 7-15 RMB each, depending on volume. Bottom Line: 3M will always be the gold standard, is available everywhere, and is useful at all times. You should always have a few available in a pinch. But it’s not the most user friendly or attractive, and you may prefer reusable ones to cut down on waste.
Vogmask was started by a group in the super-green enclave of Santa Cruz, California. They carry two types of fabrics, with their flagship models made of a high-tech non-woven microfiber. They are making a big splash this summer with the first consumer line of pollution masks specifically designed for children’s faces. Comfort: Their mask is extremely comfortable for most users. Air Leaking: It’s not quite as snug as some others and I did occasionally smell street odors. Exercising: The fabric gets soggy during exercise, as it rests on the lips. I also found it harder to take deeper breaths. Fog Factor: It sometimes takes a bit of fine tuning the metal nose clip for a good seal, but overall wasn’t a big deal Stinky Factor: This rests on the lips so gets soggy very quickly, which may be uncomfortable for some. Hipness: They have a wide assortment of colors and patterns. Also, since they look exactly like the winter kouzhao facemasks that many Beijingers use, you can blend in without getting stares. Filters: No need, as the fabric itself is the filter Kid Friendly: Yes, they offer two sizes for children from all ages, including infants. Longevity: Each mask is washable many times with no loss of filtration effectiveness Cost: 120-150 RMB, depending on the size Bottom Line: Vogmask is extremely comfortable and has a wide selection of patterns, and they are first on the market with children’s sizes which actually are proven to work. It’s not my first choice when exercising.
Totobobo is the more well known reusable, consumer friendly mask as they have been around for a few years. Originally from Singapore, they have a few models for adults and kids, with differing levels of filtration from 92 to 96% — but in China there’s no reason not to use the strongest, at 96%. Comfort: This is usually very comfortable but the plastic edges can leave skin indentations which last longer than other softer masks. Straps can go either around the head or just the ears, depending on the model. Air Leaking: The general fit is usually excellent, and you can cut edges off for an even better fit. Exercising: I had no problems during biking or jogging and still felt able to catch a breath. Fog Factor: Sometimes the nose fit isn’t perfect and my eyeglasses fog up, but this is rare Stinky Factor: It’s easy to steam up inside the plastic and takes a while to dry. Otherwise, cleaning off is easy. Hipness: The mask is clear and the small white filters are very unobtrusive. But it only comes in one style. Filters: It’s very easy to replace their small filters. Kid Friendly: Many, but not all, parents have had success cutting the masks down for children’s size. And some kids don’t mind this style compared to others. Reusability: The mask itself can last for years, and you just pop in a new filter every few days. The thin straps slowly stretch out and may eventually need replacing. Cost: 2oo RMB for the mask frame and 25 RMB for each pair of replacement 96% filters Bottom Line: Totobobo is an excellent choice with a growing track record, and also can be used for older kids if you cut it down properly.
I Can Breathe!
The I Can Breathe! reusable masks come from the USA. They have many models and styles available, and their Active Sports Mask has the best proof of effectiveness. Comfort: Their mesh fabric is very comfortable, and their adjustable straps go around the ears. Air Leaking: There is a bit of leaking and odor from the streets. Exercising: It was generally fine but not the best I’ve tried. Breathing rates were adequate. The exhalation valve helps prevent steaming up. Fog Factor: I had very little fogging of my glasses. Stinky Factor: They did well here; it dries quickly and your mouth isn’t resting on the fabric. Hipness: Not bad at all, as they have many different colors and models. Filters: The replaceable filter is a bit difficult to switch out, but it’s not a serious problem. Kid Friendly: They do not have specific children’s sizes. Longevity: The outer mesh is washable many times, and you buy filter inserts. Cost: 245 RMB for the mask, and 50 RMB for the replaceable filter Bottom Line: This is a very good, comfortable mask for adults during leisure and sports.
This article was originally printed in the 2013-4 BeijingKids Health Guide — click here to read it online