Buying a mask
When you’re shopping for your next mask, here are the key things to consider.
When you’re shopping for your next mask, here are the key things to consider.
They’ve become part of our lives but having to choose between disposable and reusable, elastic ear loops or head ties, pleated or moulded can leave our masked-up heads in a spin. Here’s our guide to what you need to know when you’re choosing your next face covering.
Covid-19 can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles that are expelled when they talk, breath, cough and sneeze. Some particles are bigger and known as droplets and some are tiny and known as aerosols. While droplets land, aerosols can remain suspended in the air.
Lesley Gray, a senior lecturer on primary health care and general practice at Otago University, said now that we know Covid-19 is also aerosol-transmitted it makes sense to mask up during outbreaks.
“Especially in busy environments when mingling with people we do not know. There is no neon light to tell us who is or who is not infectious, so masks are one easy, simple, relatively cheap part of the prevention and minimisation toolkit during these active pandemic times," she said.
Under alert levels 2, 3 and 4 you’re encouraged to wear a mask whenever you leave your homes, but you must wear them in places such as public transport, retail businesses, healthcare facilities and venues such as museums and libraries.
There are some places where you aren’t required to wear a face mask including hairdressers, beauty therapists, workplaces that aren’t customer-facing, church services and gyms.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist with the University of Otago, said mass masking was the second most effective way of stopping Covid-19 transmission after vaccines.
“Just as vaccines protect you and the people who are around you, wearing a mask also protects you and those around you,” Dr Baker said.
However, he said there hadn’t been much advice from government about masks despite the rules. “Compared with the vaccine, there’s been far less focus on access to masks and the quality of masks.”
These can fall into two categories – medical masks, such as the closer-fitting N95 masks, and non-medical masks, the ones that are usually light blue and you see a lot of people wearing.
It can get confusing because “medical” and “surgical” are also often used interchangeably to describe both.
Let’s talk about the ones you see people wearing a lot – the blue pleated rectangle with the nose wire and elastic ear loops. Usually sold in boxes of 50 for about $25, they’ll add $30 to your monthly household budget for each person if they went through two a day. If you bought two reusable masks at $20 each, they’d pay for themselves within two months.
When worn once and thrown away, disposables aren’t a planet-friendly option. The government advises on its Unite Against Covid-19 website to throw them away after the one use.
However, a group of Kiwi researchers are hoping a paper they’ve recently published will change the way we wear disposable masks. They’ve found disposable masks can be washed and reworn. Lucy Telfar Barnard, a Wellington-based epidemiologist with the University of Otago, co-authored the study and now believes disposable is the better option because they have a better filter, are easier to breathe through and usually fit better than cloth ones.
“I don’t want to say people are wrong to be wearing reusable, because if you’ve got one that’s three layers and it fits you well you can keep wearing it. But if you don’t have one that fits well and you’re looking at what to buy in the future, if you can get a good fit with a surgical mask, I’d prefer people to do that,” Dr Telfar Barnard said.
When buying a disposable mask, it can get confusing as they are marketed as meeting different standards. Dr Telfar Barnard said to check that it meets at least one of the standards, such as the EN 14683 European standard, because it shows it’s been tested. She said most disposable masks we can buy in New Zealand would meet a standard and be high quality. Dr Telfar Barnard encouraged fiddling with them to get them to best fit your face. When it fits well, you should see them it moving in and out when you breathe.
They come in a dizzying array of fabrics, fits and colours but the main thing to look for with a reusable mask is that it has three layers and fits well.
Which?, the UK equivalent of Consumer NZ, tested a bunch of reusable face coverings available over there and was able to come up with some conclusions about what types do the best job. Three-layer masks were much better at filtering particles than single-layer masks. Those with disposable filter inserts as the middle layer were most effective and blocked 95% of particles. Which? recommended tightly woven cotton if you’re deciding between fabrics but said ones made with a mix of different fabrics such as cotton, polypropylene and polyester were ideal.
The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the same advice – it says the ideal is to have an absorbent soft layer close to your face, such as cotton. The middle layer should be a fabric that’s good at filtering. The outside layer should be a tightly woven fabric such as polyester, silk or cotton.
Other features to consider include:
While there are plenty of beautiful masks out there, some of them are made from linen and other loosely woven fabrics. If you’ve already forked out for one, don’t panic. Dr Telfar Barnard said it was an opportunity to double mask, something WHO was encouraging people to do.
“So you get one of these really pretty masks and you wear it over a surgical mask,” she said.
If you’re buying online and see that it says it’s for fashion only, don’t buy it. Dr Telfar Barnard said that will be because it has only one or two layers and is possibly made from stretch material that could have too bigger holes in the fabric when it’s worn.
If choosing the right masks for your lifestyle feels a bit overwhelming, Dr Telfar Barnard said you could see masking as an extension of your wardrobe and have different types for different settings.
She said she’d have disposable masks on hand for when you want to exercise as they can be easier to breathe through than cloth ones.
“If you’re sitting at a desk or in a customer-facing role you might want to look nicer and so a cloth mask would be fine as long as it has that filter layer.”
Dr Telfar Barnard said we can expect masks to be part of the rest of our lives now. She believes New Zealanders will adopt the attitude common in Southeast Asian countries, where people wear a mask if they feel like they’re coming down with something to protect others.
“I would hope that would become part of our health behaviour because it really does help,” she said.
I asked a few Consumer NZ staffers what they liked about the masks they’re choosing to wear into work each day.
Erin Bennett, product test writer. I’ve been making multi-layer cotton masks for myself and family and friends for the last year. At first, I chose to make my own masks as few reusable masks had a removable nose wire to help avoid the annoying glasses fog, but I quickly found making them myself was also cheaper.
Paul Smith, product test manager. I bought a couple of reusables from Little Yellow Bird. They have elastics that go around your head and neck, which are really comfy compared to the ear ones. And I like that I feel good that they are made locally from fabric offcuts and have a funky retro astronaut design on them.
Maggie Edwards, consumer adviser. I love my Karen Walker mask bought at Mitre 10. It has three parts – a frame, an easy-to-wash cover and a disposable wool filter. I can use it for e-biking in a southerly and it’s so comfortable. As a glasses and hearing-aid wearer, it fits around the back of my head and nowhere near my ears.