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2 November 2020

How to buy the best face covering

Find out about the different types of face mask and reusable covering, and what to know before buying one - including which face mask fabric is best, how many layers you need, and what features to look out for
Woman with homemade mask on phone
Anna Studman

Face masks and coverings are becoming an increasing part of our daily lives, as they are now mandatory in certain situations and places across the UK.

Evidence shows that good quality reusable cloth face coverings can provide an effective barrier for particles and droplets that could spread the virus.

Wearing a face covering is primarily about protecting others, but can also provide a level of rudimentary protection to the wearer. 

The main thing is that when everyone is wearing a face covering, there is a level of communal protection as less potentially harmful droplets are being expelled into the air.

When wearing a face covering or mask, it's important to follow guidelines for using them safely, and to still maintain other key measures such as social distancing and good hand hygiene.

See our guide to wearing and washing face masks, and discover which face coverings we recommend.

Face covering rules in the UK

  • England - face coverings are mandatory on public transport, in hospitals, and in most enclosed public spaces
  • Scotland - face coverings are mandatory on public transport, in shops, and in most enclosed public spaces
  • Wales - face coverings are mandatory on public transport, in shops, and in most enclosed public spaces
  • Northern Ireland - face coverings are mandatory on public transport and in shops

There are exemptions for young children (under 11 in England or Wales, under 13 in Northern Ireland and under five in Scotland), people for whom a disability prevents them from wearing a face mask, those with breathing difficulties and anyone travelling with a person who relies on lip reading to communicate.

What is the evidence for face masks?

There is evidence that cloth face coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances.

Face masks are meant to prevent both larger droplets and smaller aerosol particles we exhale from spreading, by capturing these particles as they exit our airways when we cough, sneeze or talk.

This is important because evidence suggests these particles can carry a significant viral load that can survive for periods of hours or even days.

How to buy the best reusable face mask

There a few different designs of reusable face covering, from pleated cotton masks that mimic the design of disposable surgical masks, to moulded masks, those with disposable filters and face coverings with special antimicrobial coatings. 

Some masks with clear panels are also available for those who rely on lip reading to communicate.

Disposable masks are now also widely available, but they are a less sustainable option - both in terms of cost over time and impact on the environment. Find out more in our guide to disposable vs reusable masks.

Bear in mind, a homemade cloth mask doesn't conform to any particular standards as it's not a medical product (though there are voluntary ones in place), so it pays to be vigilant about who you buy from, and know what to look out for.

Types of reusable mask

Pleated masks  these are some of the simplest designs, using a rectangular piece of fabric, usually cotton, with pleats to fit to the face. Many of these have filter pockets to add a disposable filter between the layers.

Moulded masks another of the most common and simple mask designs, these masks are more moulded to the face and may provide a closer fit. They sometimes have a vertical seam, which has been criticised as a potential source of leakage. Some of them also have a filter pocket. Look for multiple-layered moulded masks, and ideally with built-in cloth layers rather than a disposable filter.

Valved masks be wary when buying a mask with a valve as a lot of the time the valve only filters air coming in, and not the air you exhale, which negates the point. Some of the higher-tech masks that have been manufactured since the pandemic began may filter both ways, but this is not the norm.

Clear face masks widespread adoption of face coverings has created communication problems for a lot of people who rely even in part on lip-reading to  communicate, so there are face masks available that have a clear panel so that people can still lip-read. These come with their own issues, like the clear panel fogging up. It's also important to make sure these masks are still safe and breathable.

Types of face mask fabric

Cotton tightly woven cotton is good at filtering particles, as proven in ours and other face mask tests around the world. But it's important to use multiple layers, and ideally, combine a few different types of fabric.

Polypropylene polypropylene is a synthetic non-woven material which has good filtration and moisture-wicking properties. It is the same material used for higher-grade medical face masks. 

Polyester polyester can be good for filtration and moisture-wicking but, like cotton, needs to be used in multiple layers. Some commuter-style masks use polyester or spandex on the outside and a more breathable/comfortable cotton layer on the inside to improve comfort for regular use.

Silk is usually tightly woven, so should be good at filtering particles. Silk may be good at repelling water droplets, which would make it less susceptible  to absorbing virus-laden droplets - but this hasn't been conclusively proven.

Ideally, you would have multiple layers of different fabrics, for example a combination of a comfortable material like cotton and synthetic materials like polypropylene. 

If you'd rather make your own, see our guide to making your own face covering.

Face mask features 

Filters and filter pockets 

Some reusable masks include a pocket where you can slip in a replacable filter as an extra layer. 

Commercially-made masks may come with a more high-tech filter supplied, but you can also use kitchen paper or a coffee filter. 

Filters manufactured specifically for masks are usually sold separately and often made from melt-blown nanofibres (often polypropylene), which can filter microscopic particles similar to those used in industrial and medical-grade masks.

In our tests, face coverings with disposable filters did really well at blocking bacterial particles, but they were a bit harder to breathe through, and they're also not completely sustainable as you need to dispose of the filters regularly, in some cases after each use.

Multiple layers 

Try to go for three layers, but at least two - our tests showed a clear difference between single-layer face coverings and those with a double or triple layer. 

Even better if your multiple layers are made from different fabrics. 

Single-layer face coverings were better than nothing at all, but in some cases only marginally.

The WHO suggests the ideal combination of material for non-medical masks is three layers consisting of: 

  1. An innermost layer of a hydrophilic (moisture absorbing) material (e.g. cotton or cotton blends);
  2. A middle hydrophobic (moisture repelling) layer of synthetic non-woven material such as polyproplylene or a cotton layer which may enhance filtration or retain droplets. These often come as disposable filters you buy alongside the mask.
  3. An outermost layer made of hydrophobic material (e.g. polypropylene, polyester, or their blends)

Nose wire 

Some masks have a built-in metal wire across the bridge of your nose to help mould the mask close to your face to prevent gaps where air can leak out, and to keep it in place. This is important for its effectiveness, and can also be helpful if you wear glasses, to help prevent them steaming up.

Ear loops 

Different masks have different ways of fastening to your face: common examples are elastic straps or fabric ties. 

To reduce the risk of infection, you need to be able to remove the mask just using the straps and not touching your face or the front of the mask. 

It's worth checking these have enough give, so they aren't uncomfortable to wear but still help the mask fit closely to your face. Some handmade masks may use ribbons or fabric ties instead, and some that go around your head instead of sitting behind the ears. 

Which type works best depends on the construction of the individual masks and your preference, but look for ties that are likely to be comfortable but also offer a snug fit.

It's a good idea to look for adjustable ear loops; our testers rated masks more highly for comfort and fit when they were able to adjust these.

Antimicrobial coatings

There are an increasing number of face coverings that claim to kill germs; from silver and copper infused masks to snoods with special antimicrobial coatings.

These face coverings are meant to attack bacteria and viruses that come into contact with the mask, carrying with them the tempting promise of extra protection for the wearer, and the need for less frequent washing.

Here's what you should know before buying one:

  • While some of this technology is exciting, we don’t know enough yet about the real-life effectiveness of these products.
  • Make sure you check the washing instructions, as some can’t be washed in the normal way, or as often
  • Some take several hours to inactivate viruses, so don't assume it's instant
  • Where possible, look for evidence of independent assessments or certification on product websites - some conform to a specific standard for antiviral textiles 
  • With most, the coating has a limited lifetime before it's no longer effective
  • It's still important to maintain other hygiene measures

Get our verdict on products such as the Virustatic Shield in our full story on antiviral face masks.

How much should you pay for a mask?

Prices vary from around £1 to more than £40. Most high street face coverings fall in the £5-£15 price range, but those made with silk or special antimicrobial coatings tend to be pricier.

Good reusable masks don't need to be expensive though. Both of our Best Buys come in three packs of £15 (£5 a mask).

What about face masks for children?

Children under a certain age are exempt from wearing face coverings:

  • Northern Ireland - children under 13 don't have to wear face coverings and school transport is exempt
  • England and Wales - children under 11 are exempt 
  • Scotland - children under five are exempt 

For very young children, face masks may pose a suffocation risk. Social distancing and hand hygiene are the best approaches for keeping them protected.

Even with older children, the difficulty is in ensuring they use face masks properly, adhering to the hygiene guidelines, so a comfortable fit is key.

If you're buying a mask for a child, look for those that come in a kid's size (this includes one of our Best Buy face coverings - the NEQI reusable mask). 

Face masks and hearing loss

Face masks make it more difficult to communicate generally, but particularly for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, as masks block important non-verbal cues like facial expressions, and prevent lip-reading, both of which are also crucial when communicating in British Sign Language. 

Action on Hearing Loss has a communication tips card to help people with hearing loss and those communicating with them.

The tips include:

  • speaking clearly, but not shouting
  • moving to a place with less background noise
  • writing things down
  • using simple gestures
  • using assistive devices like remote microphones with hearing aids if you have hearing loss.

Some charities have called for the adoption of face masks with a see-through panel so that people can still lip-read, and there are masks like this available - though be aware of the panels steaming up or the plastic making the masks uncomfortable to breathe in. 

Other types of face covering

Cycling /commuter masks These are designed to filter out pollution for road and city commuters, and are usually made from a fabric such as neoprene. They are close fitting and  have in-built filters (which need to be changed regularly) and valves for easier breathing. They tend to be thicker and bulkier than masks for general use, and are generally more expensive (around £25-£30). The exhalation valve means they won't protect others, as you can still exhale unfiltered particles, so they aren't suitable.

Dust Masks These vary from relatively basic, to higher-filtration FPP2 and FPP3 masks for construction work, similar to those used in medical settings. Most are single or limited use and have exhalation valves, which make it easier to breath but don't filter the air you breath out. This means they aren't suitable for protecting others from viral particles you might exhale.

Scarves/bandanas/ski buffs The lowest-effort option is also probably the least effective. In fact, they may even be counterproductive as they can easily become contaminated, move around a lot and are unlikely to fit snugly to the face. Ski buffs in particular are difficult to remove without touching the front, so should be avoided.

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