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19 May 2021

Reusable face coverings can be highly effective, Which? tests reveal

The best reusable face coverings can match disposable masks for filtration efficiency, but too many still fall short of the mark

Our latest test of reusable face coverings has shown that some can filter particles nearly or just as well as a disposable mask. But others are poor and, despite some lofty packaging claims, it can be hard to know what you're getting.

We tested 12 new face coverings to see how well they filter tiny particles, how breathable and comfortable they are to wear, and how well they work after multiple washes.

A range of styles was included, from affordable high street fabric options, to premium silk masks and products that made claims about higher filtration levels. This includes some 'semi-reusable' masks, which can be reused and washed a limited number of times before disposal.

Our top-scorer was the Airpop Pocket mask (£24.99 for a pack of four), a semi-reusable covering which filtered 99.9% of particles in our tests.

Video: best vs worst masks from our latest tests

Best of the rest

Three other high-scoring face masks impressed in our tests and are fully reusable.

These were the cheap and cheerful Superdrug reusable cotton face coverings (£4.99 for three), the Marks & Spencer Jersey face coverings (£9.50 for five) and a silk mask from The Big Silk (£16.90 for one).

These masks struck a good balance between filtration and breathability, and our testers found them comfortable to wear.

Best reusable face masks and coverings - see the full results and more on how we test

Face coverings to avoid

Several face coverings were so poor at filtering particles in our tests that we named them Don't Buys, while others failed to live up to their high filtration claims.

The popular Adidas face covering (pictured above) filtered only a third of particles in our tests, while the Vita Shield face covering dropped from 60% filtration on first use to 38% after five washes.

We shared our findings with the manufacturers. Adidas told us that its mask was designed early on in the pandemic before there were defined performance criteria for non-medical face coverings, and its mask was tested for comfort and breathability.

There is a filter pocket so you could add a filter to increase effectiveness, but filters aren't included with the mask.

The Vita Group said it was surprised and disappointed to hear the results, and that its face covering had been tested at external accredited testing facilities, which showed filtration levels of more than 90%.

It says the discrepancies demonstrate the need for clearer standards to be put in place.

Hand sanitisers on test - why it matters what you buy and where it's from

Some masks don't live up to their filtration claims

Some reusable face masks declare high filtration levels on the packet, but worryingly four we tested didn't achieve the levels stated when put to the test.

The Wise Protec and Alvita Barrier masks both claim to filter more than 90% of particles, but in our tests they managed 80% and 82%, respectively. After washing, this dropped even further to below 70%.

Boots Adult Reusable Face Mask claims more than 95% filtration, which was borne out in our tests, but after five washes this dropped to 75% (Boots says filtration levels should hold for 10 washes).

Wise Protec and Alvita told us that their above-90% filtration levels had been verified in independent, accredited labs. Boots also said its mask had been 'rigorously tested'.

Claims vs reality

A voluntary minimum performance agreement is in place for reusable face coverings, but the discrepancies revealed by our results show that plenty still aren't up to scratch.

Which? has been involved in the development of industry standards for non-medical face coverings and we believe that there's a need for more stringent standards governing non-medical face coverings so that consumers can be assured minimum filtration and performance requirements are met.

Recent concerns about the safety of different antimicrobial coatings also point to a need for more effective oversight of the market.

'Semi-reusable' masks vary in quality

Since we first tested face coverings in October 2020, a new breed of 'semi-reusable' mask has emerged.

These claim to have higher filtration specs and are made from similar materials to disposable masks, but you can wear and wash them a set number of times before they have to be disposed of.

We tested several of these masks with mixed results. The Airpop Pocket (pictured above, left) mask impressed, living up to its filtration claims and maintaining performance after washing.

But the Alvita Barrier Mask, sold at Boots (above, right), lost a lot of its filtration power after a few washes and wasn't very comfortable to wear.

The obvious downside of even a good semi-reusable mask is that it's not quite as sustainable as a fully reusable cloth mask and is also more costly as you'll need to buy replacements more often.

But a good one, such as the Airpop Pocket, could be handy for higher-risk scenario, such as crowded places or public transport, when you want a bit more peace of mind.

Can you recycle the Airpop?

Airpop told us its mask isn't currently recyclable, although it is looking into more sustainable materials and the possibility of allowing customers to return used masks for recycling.

Undeterred, we asked Wilko if this type of mask would be accepted by its trial disposable mask recycling scheme, and after checking with the recycling company that runs it (ReWorked), it told us it could.

So if a Wilko near you is running this scheme, you can recycle your masks there.

Disposable mask buying guide - everything you need to know about the different types and the pros and cons vs reusable masks

Mask-wearing guidance still patchy

It's really important to use, wear and wash your mask properly to maximise its effectiveness, so we were disappointed to find that seven of the 12 new face coverings we tested had poor usage and washing instructions on the packaging,

We checked for basic information such as cleaning instructions (washing method and temperature, and how often required), clear instructions about how to correctly wear the mask and that it isn't a medical device.

This is an easy win, and something detailed in the existing voluntary agreement, that we'd like to see manufacturers sort out.

We'd also ideally like to see advice included on maximum recommended numbers of wears/washes - something only a handful of brands currently do.

Brush up on your mask etiquette with our advice on how to use and wash your face mask properly.