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1 December 2020

Best reusable face masks

Independent Which? lab tests reveal which face coverings are best for superior filtration, breathability and comfort – plus the poor face coverings to avoid
Anna Studman

Face coverings have quickly become an everyday essential, but our research shows that the type you buy matters, as they vary significantly in effectiveness.

We tested 15 reusable fabric face coverings from a range of high street and online brands - as well as the UK government-recommended homemade face covering design - to find out how well they filter bacterial particles.

We also assessed how breathable and comfortable they are to wear, and how they stand up to repeated use and washing.

The best face coverings did a good job of blocking particles and were easy to breathe through too. But we also uncovered some poor one-layer face coverings that blocked as little as 7% of particles from penetrating the mask. 

Below are the full results of our first comparative lab test of face coverings, including the ones we recommend. 

Find out more about reusable face covering types, features and using tips in our face mask buying guide.

Which? recommended face coverings

These face coverings offer the best balance of filtration efficiency and breathability. 

They are Which? Best Buys – our top-scoring products that we recommend.

NEQI Reusable Face Masks, £15 for three (£5 per mask)

Which? score: 81%

This simple, fabric face covering impressed in our tests.

The three-layer construction did a good job in our bacterial filtration tests, capturing 80% of particles on the first test and 72% after five washes. Our testers also found it easy to breathe in and comfortable to wear with minimal gaps.

It's available in kids, small/medium and large to suit different face sizes, and two colour options. The mix of cotton, polyester and a touch of elastane (spandex) means this face covering is soft, comfortable and a little stretchy.

The instructions are quite limited and they’re only on the packet, so take a look at it before you throw it out.

At the time of writing, these masks are widely available: you can pick them up from Boots and Ocado. A pack of three costs £15 (£5 per mask), which is pretty good value, and means you can have spares to hand when one is in the wash.

Bags of Ethics Great British Designers Face Coverings, £15 for three (£5 per mask)

Which? score: 80%

For something a little more colourful, these tightly woven cotton sateen pleated masks come in a pack of three, with one striking design each from Halpern, Mulberry and Raeburn.

They did well when filtering particles - managing 72% of particles on the first test, 73% after five washes - while also being some of the most breathable we looked at. The trade-off is that they are double-layered, not triple. 

A nose wire allows you to create a snug fit, but the elastic ear loops are the attach-and-adjust variety – like a bra strap – and can be a bit fiddly to get right.

You get two protective cloth pouches in the pack to store your used mask in while out and about before washing it, which is handy.

The manufacturer says the masks are good for 50 uses before recycling, so a pack of three will last around five months. Profits from the sale of these face coverings go to charity.

These masks also come in a pack of three for £15. At the time of writing, they're also widely available: you can find them at John Lewis, Boots, Sainsbury's, Argos, Waitrose and direct from Bags of Ethics.

Full face covering test results

Our tests show that some reusable face coverings do a really good job of filtering particles, while being easy to breathe through. But others struggle to get the balance right. 

Face coverings that received the lowest filtration scores are labelled 'Don't Buys.' We recommend you avoid these products.

Face covering Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
NEQI Reusable face masks

Typical price £15 for three
81%
This Best Buy face covering filtered 80% of particles, but was also really easy to breathe through. The soft fabric is comfortable to wear, but the ear loops aren't adjustable - nor does it have a nose wire, which might explain why it fared less well in our glasses user test. It does come in three different sizes, though, and it's good value at £15 for three.

Layers Three

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable No, but comes in three sizes - S/M, L, Kids

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Where to buy Boots, Ocado
Bags of Ethics Great British Designer face coverings

Typical price £15 for three
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
80%
This pleated cotton Best Buy face covering strikes a good balance between filtration and breathability, being the most breathable mask that still scored highly on filtration – but it only has two layers. The ear loops are adjustable, but somewhat fiddly, and there is a nose wire for fitting it to your face. It’s also good value at £5 each in a pack of three.

Layers Two

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Adjustable ear straps

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable Yes

Glasses-compatible: 4/5

Where to buy: Bags of Ethics, Waitrose, John Lewis, Boots, Sainsbury's
Asos design Palm Print face covering

Typical price £12
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
78%
This 100% cotton three-layer face covering did pretty well on our filtration tests fresh out of the packet, but it improved markedly after washing. So it's worth washing it before using it. Our testers found it really easy to breathe through, and though one-size it fitted well thanks to easily adjustable ear loops and a nose wire. If you wear glasses, this could be a good choice, as it scored joint highest for comfort with glasses.

There are a couple of different patterns available, and it comes with a handy drawstring cloth pouch for storage.

Layers Three

Filter pocket Yes

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable Yes

Glasses-compatible 5/5

Where to buy: Asos
AB Mask Reusable Antibacterial Mask

Typical price £10
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
73%
This AB two-layer mask (with five-layer disposable filter) scored highly in our filtration tests, capturing nearly 100% of the particles that came into contact with it. It did less well on breathability, though, and the disposable filter means it’s less sustainable than a fully cloth mask.

It has a silver-based antibacterial coating, which the brand says will help remain effective for up to 100 washes. Replacement filters are £5 for a pack of 5 (£1 each).

Our testers found it really comfortable and easy to adjust, and it scored joint-highest for people who wear glasses.

Layers Three (including filter)

Filter pocket Yes

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable Yes

Glasses-compatible 5/5

Where to buy Boots, Superdrug
Step Ahead face mask

Typical price £2
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
72%
The Step Ahead mask is an impressive cheap option - filtering around 80% of bacterial particles both on first use and after five washes. It's a three-layer face covering made with a mix of different polyester fabrics and cotton, with a nonwoven inner layer for filtration and a water repellent outer layer. It was also easy to breathe through.

The downside is that it doesn't have a nose wire and the ear loops aren't adjustable, so it's not great for people who wear glasses, and our testers had mixed opinions about how comfortable it was to wear.

Layers Three

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Where to buy Tesco, Iceland, Wilko, Savers
Homemade UK Government face covering

Typical price n/a
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
n/a 67%
We put the UK government's simple homemade face covering pattern to the test, to see how it fared. The results show that a homemade mask made with tightly woven cotton is an effective option: it filtered 73% of particles before washing and an impressive 81% after five washes - and was still easy to breathe through.

But if you’re making your own, look for another pattern to use: this face covering was let down by a sloppy fit and our testers didn’t find it comfortable to wear.

Layers Two

Filter pocket No (could add when making)

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No (could add when making)

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Size adjustable No (could adjust to fit you when making)
John Lewis adult face coverings 

Typical price £10 for three
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
62%
This cotton/polypropylene combination three-layer mask did well on filtration, but our testers were lukewarm on overall comfort and fit. It didn’t seem to be a good option for people who wear glasses and it doesn’t have adjustable ear loops. On first wear it did well on breathability, but this was significantly worse after five washes.

Layers Three

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Where to buy John Lewis
Smart Mask

Typical price £14
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
59%
The Smart Mark is made up of three layers of different material, including antimicrobial fibres, antibacterial polypropylene, and a water and UV-resistant outer layer. It filtered more than 95% of bacterial particles - an impressive number - but was more laborious to breathe through.

It doesn’t have any fit adjustable features such as a nose wire or adjustable ear loops, but some of our testers still found it really comfortable. The masks are available online, though we've been made aware that the company is having difficulty processing orders at the moment.

Layers Three

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 4/5

Maskie Loop UV Sanitized reusable face mask

Typical price £7
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
58%
This mask has three layers (including the disposable filter) and claims to be UV sanitised. It filtered an impressive 99% of bacterial particles, but was less comfortable to breathe through. Our testers didn’t find it very comfortable to wear, either – it’s not fit-adjustable and wasn’t great for people who wear glasses.

Maskie says it 'UV sanitises' all its masks prior to packaging, but it's unclear what this involves and just means that the product would be sterile upon opening. Replacement filters –made from non-woven melt-blown filter cloth –cost £8 for a pack of 10.

Layers Three

Filter pocket Yes

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Delphis Eco Professional Antimicrobial reusable mask

Typical price £20 for three
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
55%
The Delphis mask has three polyester layers with an outer layer that is coated with silver – an antimicrobial agent that may help reduce bacterial build up. It did relatively well on filtration, blocking 80% of particles before washing and 88% after. But it was harder to breathe through than other options.

Replacement filters, made of nonwoven polyester, are £6.99 for a pack of 10.

Layers Three

Filter pocket Yes

Attachment type Head ties

Nose wire No

Size adjustable Yes

Glasses-compatible 4/5

Where to buy Robert Dyas, Ryman
Firebox Reusable face masks

Typical price £15
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
54%
This mask is three layers with a disposable filter. It needs to be washed by hand before use. It did really well on filtration, filtering 86% of particles before washing and nearly 100% after. Unfortunately, this makes breathability trickier. It doesn’t have adjustable ear loops and our testers weren’t too impressed with the way it fit – it left some gaps around the face.  

Firebox doesn't make specific filters, but you can buy generic PM2.5 non-woven cloth filters online (PM2.5 is a common type of filter and refers to the size of particle it filters).

Layers Three

Filter pocket Yes

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable Yes

Glasses-compatible 2/5

Where to buy Firebox
Skinnydip Rainbow face covering    

Typical price £8
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
50%
This polyester/cotton two layer mask did poorly on both our filtration tests (only managing to filter about half of the particles on the first go, and 60% after washing) and – perhaps unsurprisingly – was very easy to breathe through. Give it a miss.

Layers Two

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear loops

Nose wire No

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 4/5

Etiquette face covering

Typical price £3
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
37%
This is a one-layer polyester mask that says it has ‘antibacterial and biocidal properties’. But it did miserably in our bacterial filtration tests. On the first filtration test, it filtered just 7% of bacteria particles. Our testers also commented that it had a ‘pungent smell’ when wearing.

Layers One

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear holes

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable No

Glasses-compatible 3/5

Asda White Patterned face masks    

Typical price £3 (no longer on sale)
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
36%
This cheap Asda face covering is light and breathable, so much so that it only filtered a third of the particles that passed through it in our tests. It's marginally better than no mask at all, but we don't think it's up to scratch. Asda has pulled this mask from sale while it investigates our findings, but if you've already gone one of these, it's time to trade up.

Layers One

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear slits

Nose wire No

Size adjustable Partially, but not really - there are two levels of ear slits you can use

Glasses-compatible 1/5

Termin8 lightweight breathable face covering

Typical price £2
Filtration efficiency Breathability Ease of use Instructions Score
35%
This mask, which you might see at Lloyds Pharmacy or WHSmith, is breathable - but that's because it's not providing much of a barrier. Other reusable face coverings we tested were six times more effective at filtering particles; it was the worst overall for filtration and we recommend you avoid it.

Layers One

Filter pocket No

Attachment type Ear holes

Nose wire Yes

Size adjustable No

Glasses compatible 1/5

Table last updated: 29 October 2020

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What the companies say

We shared our results with the manufacturers or retailers of the three Don't Buy face masks.

Termin8 and Superdrug (the retailer of the Etiquette mask) disputed our findings and said that their masks conform to government guidelines for fabric face coverings and that the guidance doesn’t require them to have bacterial filtration. 

Asda has pulled its face covering from sale as a result of our findings.

Score breakdown

The overall test score for each mask ignores price, and is based on:

  • 70% Key performance tests (bacterial filtration and breathability)
  • 30% User assessments around fit, comfort and ease of use.

Face coverings had to do well on both filtration and breathability to become a Best Buy, and their performance both before and after five wash cycles was taken into account.

The Don’t Buys were those that scored lowest on filtration, both pre and post-washing.

Face covering durability

All the reusable face coverings we tested fared well for ease of cleaning and durability. They survived multiple washes without showing signs of wear, and the ear loops and nose wires coped with repeat wears with no breakages. 

How we test face coverings

Video guide: Which? face mask tests

In this first ever UK test of reusable face coverings, we wanted to establish which masks were most effective at blocking particles from escaping - the essential job of a face covering - but also easy to breathe through and how comfortable they are, as otherwise you would quickly tire of wearing them.

We also wanted to check how well reusable coverings stood up to regular use and washing, and if filtration efficiency was affected over time.

Our results reveal both how functional a mask is in terms of blocking particles from penetrating the material, and how comfortable it is to wear day to day.

Bacterial filtration efficiency

This key test determines how effective a face mask is at blocking particles.

Tiny bacterial particles (three micrometres in diameter) are shot through the face covering via an aerosol generator at a flow rate of 28 litres per minute. 

Filtration efficiency is measured based on the percentage of colony forming units of bacteria that were able to pass through the face covering. This is the same test used to assess surgical masks for efficiency.

We found huge discrepancies in how well face coverings were able to filter bacterial particles.

'The best face coverings were able to filter more than 99% of particles, while the worst only managed a paltry 7%'

In order to pass the test, face coverings had to achieve at least 70% filtration efficiency.

We repeated the filtration tests after the masks had been through the wash five times, and gave equal weighting to the pre- and post-wash filtration score.

Interestingly, filtration efficiency improved after five washes for 11 of the face coverings, caused by fibres compressing during the wash. 

The largest improvement was an increase from 7% filtration to 27%, but most only improved marginally.  However, bear in mind that over a longer period of time it's possible the fabric will wear and become slightly less effective. So if your mask is starting to look worn out it's time to replace it. 

Filtering coronavirus particles

It should be noted that coronavirus particles can be much smaller (as little as 0.1 micrometre in diameter), so what we are measuring is not the face covering’s ability to protect against coronavirus, per se. 

Face coverings are not medical devices and aren't designed to block all particles down to these ultra-fine particles, like a higher-grade medical respirator mask would. 

But measuring bacterial filtration efficiency allows us to get an idea of how well face coverings provide a barrier for particles, using bacteria as a proxy.

Like basic disposable surgical masks, reusable face coverings are intended to help block larger droplets and aerosols emitting from the wearer, who may be asymptomatic. 

This helps to create community protection by minimising exhalation of virus particles, which would be contained in these larger droplets and aerosols.

Breathability

You’re more likely to wear your mask properly if you can breathe comfortably. 

To find out how easy or hard it will be to breathe in a face covering, we measure the pressure required to draw air through the mask at a rate of eight litres per minute.

We also repeated breathability tests after five washes. For most masks, the breathability scores decreased after repeated washing, likely due to the same fibre shrinkage effect that made them better at filtration.

For all but one mask, the change wasn't significant. 

Head harness strength

Three people with different head shapes and sizes put each of the coverings on and then took them off again 80 times to simulate a month’s worth of wear, looking for signs of damage. 

Breaking head straps is a common complaint we've noticed with disposable masks, but it doesn't seem to be a significant issue with reusable ones. No damage was reported to any of the coverings during this test.

Cleaning and shrinkage

We washed each face covering five times at 60°C, or at the temperature recommended by the manufacturer, looking for damage each time. 

Again, all of the products passed this test. Any shrinkage was minimal and not enough to affect the fit.

Ease of use

Our three assessors checked a range of ease of use measures, including:

  • How easy it is to put the face coverings on and take them off
  • How they felt to wear: looking for tightness, gaps and ease of adjustment. 
  • Comfort while talking
  • If they will make your glasses fog up.

Instructions 

We checked how clear and comprehensive the instructions were, including the presence of warnings about them not being medical-grade PPE, as well as instructions on how to wear and wash them properly.

More than half of the masks failed on our requirements for clear and comprehensive instructions. Seven out of the 13 (excluding the homemade masks) lacked important warnings about proper use.

There are some voluntary standards for manufacturers advising on what needs to be on the packaging of face coverings, but clearly there's room for improvement.

See our face covering usage guide for more. 

How we selected face coverings to test

We looked to include a range of face coverings made of different materials, numbers of layers and designs (eg pleated, molded, with filter, kids sizes available), to see which were most effective and comfortable.

We also aimed to cover a range of price points, widely available products in high street retailers, and some high-profile online-only brands. 

At the time of testing, there were a lot of issues with models being sold out, so some models we would like to have tested weren't available for this round of tests.

We chose to investigate face coverings with anti-microbial coatings separately as this is an emerging and specialist area. You can get our verdict in our guide to anti-viral face masks.

Why we’ve released our full test results to the public

Our full product test results and recommendations are usually only available to Which? members, but we’re making our reusable face coverings results free to everyone as we believe it’s important to share this information for the benefit of wider public health.

We are working with consumer organisations across the world to pool our face covering research insights and make them available for all, in order to aid the global fight against COVID-19.

You can support Which? and our not-for-profit mission by becoming a Which? member. We have no owners, shareholders or government departments to answer to and we don't take advertising. 

We are completely independent and our work is funded by Which? members, who enable us to continue running independent product tests to uncover the best - and worst - products, and campaign on behalf of all consumers in the UK.

Why reusable masks?

Reusable masks aren’t required to conform to specific standards like disposable masks are, although there is a voluntary standard in place. 

Our test, the first comparative test of its kind in the UK, reveals that there are significant differences in effectiveness between reusable masks and that the best can be as effective as a disposable version.

The more of us who are wearing effective reusable face coverings, the better we are all protected, while also helping to reduce waste caused by disposable masks.

What about disposable face masks?

We’ve focused on testing reusable face coverings as this is a new market, with only voluntary standards in place, and wide variation in style and design, and a lack of insight into the best construction. 

It's therefore difficult for people to know which ones are the most effective.

Reusable face coverings are also the government recommended option for the general public, and are more sustainable, affordable and practical for everyday use than disposable surgical masks.

Find out more in our disposable face masks buying guide.


*Product testing and scientific analysis led by Matt Stevens, Sophie Katanchian and Kamisha Darroux

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