Air Pollution Masks: Buy Them Now! Here’s Where — And Why

Today marks day four of emergency public health conditions in Beijing, with hazardous air pollution readings above 300 AQI at the US Embassy’s monitor — and I continue to be astonished at the almost total absence of anyone wearing any type of protective mask outside. Every morning I bike past a large group of expat parents getting their kids off to school on the buses — and no one is wearing any mask, not even their children. What’s going on here? What is this collective disconnect, this massive delusion pretending we’re actually not in an emergency situation? Are we really so blase about air pollution that we risk the lives and lungs of our children? Or is it a more likely answer that we simply cannot find these masks in Beijing, especially ones that fit children?

So I’d like to refresh the facts for everyone:

You need to protect yourself and your children when the AQI is over 300. We’re not messing around here; these numbers are truly dangerous for everyone and are at the highest ranking in the EPA system. It’s especially risky for anyone with a bad heart or lung disease, as heart attack rates skyrocket during air pollution spikes. As for children, these air pollution spikes definitely can damage their still-developing lungs. Most international schools in Beijing would keep their students inside with AQI over 200 or 250, and certainly the current 300’s. In the USA, many air pollution alerts kick in after an AQI over 150. In the US, the EPA officially says “people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors” — and that’s for AQI >200! As of now, we are at 338 AQI…

Air pollution masks definitely work, especially the ones rated N95. Here’s again the graph that shows how well they work:

air pollution masks N95

Don’t forget that the key is to find a mask that is certified N95; this is an official rating that the mask filters out 95% of particulate matter in the air. The best company, in my opinion, is 3M, which makes multiple versions of N95 masks mostly for professional use in hazardous jobs. They are the most effective, but unfortunately they’re not exactly consumer-friendly or pretty on the eyes. I’m sure there are many companies in China making N95 masks, but I just couldn’t vouch for them, so if you can get 3M, stick with that. They usually are a thick white rounded mask with yellow ties, such as this one:

3m mask air pollution

Where to buy:

International clinics. Here at BJU, we sell the 3M N95 masks at the gift shop in our new hospital wing (lobby level, left side, behind the plants). Each mask is 16 RMB. I’m pretty sure that the pharmacies at SOS and the other clinics sell them as well.

Expat markets April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s. I’ve seen most of these expat markets carry a pile of N95 masks, usually behind the cash registers. If you don’t see it, ask them! The Chinese words for mask is 口罩。So you could ask them for their “wu1 ran2 kou3zhao4” 污染口罩 and hopefully they will understand. If they do not sell them, please ask them to buy them and keep them in stock!

Online Websites. This may be your best bet; you can order from a trusted website such as and buy a big box of masks, pay easily with credit card and get delivered, often for free. My favorite website is, and you simply search for “3M N95 口罩” and get yourself a box: this link (hopefully) takes you directly to their page of 3M N95 masks, including model 8210; a box of 20 is only 160 RMB.

I’m very wary of taobao and other sites, as I’ve heard that the counterfeit rates are extraordinarily high on many items there. Perhaps 3M also has a direct supply via their own websites?

Torana Air: Torana Clean Air Center is a store with two outlets in Beijing (here’s their website) and they sell my favorite air pollution mask, the Totobobo mask. As I mentioned in my article last year, Totobobo masks are the most consumer-friendly masks, can be cut down for kid faces, and their filters can be switched very quickly and extremely cheaply. They sell two versions for 150RMB each. They even come with a handy bag; I always carry one in my bag just in case I need it (which happens way too often…)

Local pharmacies and supermarkets. This is much more hit-and-miss, but especially local pharmacies may carry N95 masks since the H1N1 flu scare a few years ago. They should definitely carry regular surgical masks.

Watsons and 7/11. These stores don’t carry the hardcore N95 masks but they usually do have clean surgical masks, often from Japan or Korea, which are much better than nothing. If you look at the graph above, a properly fitted surgical mask (best with the metal nose-bridge to pinch tighter) can ideally filter 80% of particulates.

My Bottom Line.

OK, now you don’t have to feel helpless anymore since you now know where to get these masks. That means you now you have no excuse next time the AQI is over 200-250 (like, um, most days here…) And especially regarding the Totobobo masks, now parents have a viable option for their kids if they absolutely must be outside on the bad days.

UPDATE: for more information, please read my N95 Masks Buyer’s Guide as well as my air pollution archives.

Double Protected -- Totobobo mask and bike helmet
Double Protected — Totobobo mask and bike helmet

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34 thoughts on “Air Pollution Masks: Buy Them Now! Here’s Where — And Why”

  1. There are a lot of fake products on Taobao, though I would think the masks would be safe as there isn’t much profit in faking something so cheap, plus its not the kind of thing you typically find faked, usually its more along the lines of clothing, shoes, and bags.

    Haha, glad you added the tones for kouzhao, if you get these wrong, it could be very, very embarassing!

    1. I’d worry about people faking the filters for the Totobobo as some of the models like the “matrix” zeolite-impregnated ones carry a premium price due to its unique construction over the other filters. Some might be tempted to replace them with circular cuts of cotton batting or something similar.

  2. Thank you so much for your guidance, here and earlier, on the air issues. We earlier today went to Torana to buy the smallest and least expensive of the purifiers for the kids’ room, and the masks you’ve recommended before. (We did feel freakish as no one else seems to be wearing them, and people do stare.) The air in the masks smelled so fresh. A big thanks to you for the specific guidance. You’re doing great work. I think it’s hard psychologically to accept how dangerous the air is on these super crazy bad days. And depressing, which can be paralyzing. Still, I hope folks will push through the denial, and that those who can afford to will take your advice.

    1. Thanks for the support! I think we have to convince families, one at a time. Hopefully (in a sad way), the next time the AQI is over 300, we will see a lot more parents and kids walking around in their masks…

  3. This post is really useful. I am studying at BFSU and here nobody cares about the pollution including the foreigner students. I know that totobobo mask filters can be used up to 2 weeks, but what about the 3M 8210 masks?

    1. I think — but am not 100% sure — that the 3M masks can be worn at least a few times, until it gets dirty looking. Does anyone have more details?

  4. Air quality in Beijing is close to 300 today and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wore one of those surgical masks. Lots of funny looks on the street…but health is most important, after all!

  5. Just putting on mine… would also be interested in knowing how often you can reuse those…on some allergy site it said just up to 2 times..

  6. Had actually a heard time breathing through the mask second day I used it last week with API above 400, so I decided to take a new one. Ordered a box of masks – and it says in the usage instructions: “If the respirator becomes damaged, soiled or breathing becomes difficult…..replace it.”
    So, seems the mask will tell us 🙂 as did mine.
    Glad the air is breathable again.

    1. Scary! I’ve been in America this week but my wife has been telling me how bad the air was, day after day…I must admit that true blue skies are really wonderful! I’ve been on the south shore coastline of Boston with my family, eating lobster rolls and walking along the beach. Crisp fall air, deep blue skies against the golden autumn leaves…I certainly enjoyed this precious moment!

  7. There is no reason to panic just because the US embassy publishes some API figures that exceed 300 …
    During the last days the figures from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau ( showed only slight polution.

    I don’t know whether an embassy has qualified staff to maintain and operate the equipment. At least, they are measuring at a single point, while the Environmental Protection Bureau has several measuring stations in each city district.

    Fog creates bad mood, but it does not automatically mean poor air quality.
    10+ years ago when use of coal for heating was widespread, air polution was really visible. But today coal has been replaced by clean natural gas and traffic has become the main source of air pollution. These particles are extremly small and don’t create visible fog / smog.

    I have been in Beijing during the SARS crisis and I know the local Beijingers are extremly sensitive to any health threats. As long as the local Beijingers are not scared, there is no reason for expat to panic either.

    BTW: I am seriously running, annually participating in the Beijing marathon, so I DO care about the air quality.

    1. You bring up a few extremely important points; the US Embassy’s numbers are usually higher than the Beijing EPB. That’s for a good reason. As a local Chinese scientist mentioned today in China Daily, most air pollution in Beijing is from PM2.5 and not PM10. So that’s why the PM2.5 numbers are usually higher. This is crucial to understand because every scientist agrees that PM2.5 is much more serious to health than PM10 (you breathe it in deeper)

      And actually people should “panic” or at least be incredibly concerned if the AQI is over 300. This is usually an extremely rare event, in the West would usually only be caused downwind of a forest fire or some extreme event. It’s not just made up, this is official recommendation from the US EPA and other equivalent authorities to be called a public health emergency.

      And the local Beijingers are in fact extremely worried, and in fact are quickly becoming quite angry, and debating online just in these last few weeks of atrocious weather. The online community on Weibo is filled with complaints these weeks, which are covered in multiple news stories in CNN, China Daily, and the LA Times.

      Lastly, this is NOT fog, this is smog.

    2. In addition to Dr. Richard’s valid response:

      On “fog”: the presence of lingering fog can indicate a high level of particulate matter on which the water vapor is able to condense and form fog (smog). The air then becomes more dense and pollution gets held in a blanket over the city. So fog can be–and in the case of Beijing, is–related to poor air quality.

      On coal burning being “replaced by clean natural gas”: coal burning is still wide spread, from small home heating, to street cooking, to large heating furnaces.

      On small particles not creating visible fog/smog: this is easily disproved by simply looking outside. On many days we cannot see down the street past a few kilometers, but if you look straight up at the sky, you can see that it is a cloudless, water vapor-less, blue-sky day. Volker, by your own sources, the larger particle concentration is not so high, so what can be creating the pollution blanket on these blue-sky days? It’s the smaller particles.

      And finally, on basing your actions on the sentiment of the locals: as Dr. Richard pointed out, many citizens are aware and even angry about the pollution. Many, however, are not. I’ve heard, “Beijing has many people who live to be old, so the health threat can’t be too great.” This “logic” is totally unacceptable in a country where respiratory problems are the number-two killer. Just like I wouldn’t trust the average-Joe to perform an appendectomy on me, I wouldn’t trust him to give me advice on respiratory health.

      1. This fog vs smog issue is really interesting. I asked a scientist from the US last week, “can fog raise AQI levels?” He said no it does not; in fact, a pure water vapor fog would dissipate the air particles and thus would lower a true air pollution AQI, not raise the AQI. So if you see foggy conditions outside and want to know if it’s clean fog or unhealthy smog, just look at the AQI.

        Or perhaps we should call it “haze” instead, which is sort of a “dry” smog?

        Bottom line, we should NOT be calling it simply fog when the AQI is 300. This silly debate of words is distracting from actually dealing with the true issues.

  8. thanks . this post is very helpful. i have buy one set from
    before that, i wen to taobao and found a shop selling the mask in a low price. but when i said:”if it is not the same as the one selling on, i will give you a bad review “, the owner replied:”if so, i sugguest you not buy them.”
    i have posted the convertion to google+ (in chinese)

    Another question: where can i get the AQI level for my city?

    ps: you are so handsome.

  9. Hello Dr Saint Cyr,

    After reading your very helpful info, we bought a few boxes 3M 9332 N99 from a supplier here in Beijing (via Taobao) for 30 rmb each.

    Not sure how the 8210 compares in terms of fit but using this type of masks before, the 9332 really has a great fit. It has a comfy foam inlay around the nose and aluminium strip for a better seal. In terms of size they fit perfectly for both my wife and me. It also has a vent for easy breading (in cold weather it just condenses a bit at above normal exercise).

    The result is immediately noticeable, it also helps with any other “street smells” you may encounter. People that are very conscious on looks, just cover with a scarf.

    Think you can easily wear it for a couple of days as these are designed for industrial use. So for 30 rmb every 3-4 days you have a new filter, and to my knowledge, the highest protection compared to any other masks.

    On Taobao: only use high rated vendors, most would link to Tmall anyway which gives you a higher guarantee things are real. Also do not go for lowest price, especially when the price is a lot lower than the range offered by highly rated vendors.

  10. You can also buy the Totobobo mask directly from the manufacturer on their website at Torana Air’s prices seem to reflect a markup over the manufacturer’s, not surprisingly.

    Now, a question: This blog specifically mentions the 3M N95 8210 respirator. I decided to try it. I wear glasses, and whenever I wear the respirator, my right lens fogs up. I am not sure whether this means I am not wearing it right. I have a deviated septum so maybe that has something to do with it. Does fogging up of glasses mean that the mask is not working?

    1. I’m not too sure about the fogging — when you exhale, it has to go out somewhere, no? I would think that most likely it does mean that the seal isn’t too good and that you’re likely inhaling as well from that gap…A lot of 3M N95 masks have exhalation valves which greatly cut down on the fogging, like their 8212, 8511 models…good for exercising like on a bike…

      1. When I hold the 8210 mask to my face, there is no fogging. When I let go, there is. No matter hard I follow all the fitting steps, that’s what happens. So that seems to be saying that the issue is with the design of the mask and that it is useless to me. I also bought a set of 3M N95 8812 masks with exhalation valves. They still sometimes fog, though not as much, but I assume that the slightest leak also renders it useless. I guess 3M masks are useless for people with non-standard noses? Well, I bought a Totobobo mask and am hoping that its claims to being easier to fit than N95 masks are true.

  11. Hi Joe, thanks for purchase of Totobobo mask. Totobobo mask is more flexible and can be customize to a better fit. But we cannot claim it fits everyone. Trying it yourself is necessary to test the fit. Please let us know if you have any question, there is different way that you can make it fit better.

    About leak affecting the performance, that is highly depends on the air resistant of the filters. Since air tends to flow through the lowest resistance path, If the filter is of high air resistant, even a small gap means a lot of air leakage. However, if the filter is made of low air resistant filter, most of the air will move through the filters even there is a small gap. Totobobo filters is known for it’s low air resistance and easy of breathing.

    The air leak during exhale may not be the same as inhale, due to the flexibility of Totobobo mask, any air gap tends to be tighten or sealed when you inhale due to negative pressure. If you adjust the tension of the strap carefully, you can make exhale air come out easily (through the gaps), and the gaps will be (or mostly) closed as you inhale, effectively creating a one-way valve out of the entire mask body.


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  13. Hello and thanks for your effort.
    Can I buy the mask only at #2 Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang District or can I also buy it at #21 Jianguomenwai Dajie, B1?
    Because the first adress is quite far away from me

    Thank you for your help and answer

      1.  Thank’s for your reply. Do you have a link to buy it online?
        I called the UFH and they told me there is no possibility to buy it online.
        Thank you very much for your support

      2. Sorry no, my clinic doesn’t sell anything online, you’d have to come in. My post details other websites where you can buy masks…

  14. Hi Dr. Saint Cyr,

    So releived to have found your site! Just want to share my experience with you.

    Since last September I am living and working as a school nurse in an international school in Central-West China, where the average air quality is worse than in Beijing!!After a airquality test within the school, we are having a try-out with some airpurifiers! On bad days my daughter and I start wearing the 3M N95 8210 regular mask in the morning schoolbus ride and I tried it inside the building: we had very different reactions on that, but for sure it was noticed!!Recently we added a kouzhao to cover up the white mask, but it is not comfortable, too warm and itchy with all the wraps! I am waiting for my Totobobo mask to arrive, which is better adapted to the face and looks less impressif,I think. Hopefully the students,parents,teachers and schoolboard will react when they will see us with those…
    Well, wish you a great weekend and keep on going with the very helpful information that I will share with the people at work!

  15. is a quick way to find the quality masks for pollution or for occupational use. There are vendors on this website that also sell bulk quantities of disposable masks. Some of their masks are sold through Amazon so there shouldn’t be a problem with them being shipped to any country. I think that there are small sizes listed too.

  16. I purchased air purifire fliter to my home and I insisit take masks when AQI is over 200. I hope more and more parents and kids walking around in their mask when AQI is too high. Thank your for all those you done!

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