*This post may contain affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a purchase through my link, without any extra cost to you.
Air pollution can seriously affect your health. An air pollution mask is the only barrier between polluted air and your lungs. Though very few masks actually pass our test. Before you buy, it’s important to know what features keep you protected:
- Efficiency: At a bare minimum, ensure the mask is marked “P99 or “N99” or even better, “P100”, meaning it filters out 99 or 100% of the pollutants, respectively. Better to got with “P..” than “N..” as these are oil-resistant.
- Fit and Shape: This may be the important consideration. Sealed edges and ergonomic design are key. We’ll explain why this is so important later.
- Breathable: When exercising or at least respiring, you’ll need a mask that offers multiple filters to allow more air in to your nose and mouth.
- Refillable: Like your home or car filters, gunk builds up in the filters and they eventually need replacing. Replacing filters on a high quality masks is far cheaper and more effective than buying a new mask every week.
If you are reading this you probably already know what poor air quality feels like. The primary culprit is particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter. For comparison, the average human hair is 50-70 microns in diameter. In other words, they are too small to see with the naked eye. These little guys are so small that they easily go unchallenged through the nose and mouth and make their way deep into the lungs and eventually the blood stream.
Watch this video from the American Lung Association that shows the route that particulates travels after they enter your body. Once debris reaches the lungs’ alveoli it activates plasma tryglicerides and low-density litpoprotiens and then moves through to the liver, causing inflammation in the lungs and forcing the liver to work overtime.
Children, elderly, and individuals with chronic conditions a
re especially susceptible to air-quality related illnesses. Serious acute effects typically appear through the
Much like cigarette smoking, the effects can be long-lasting. Wearing an air pollution mask can protect your lungs and liver from particulates, but the degree of protection varies widely based on the mask and the conditions.
The source of poor air quality is most commonly urban smog. Though wildfire smoke is increasingly common across the American West. Wildfire smoke and urban smog differ in their content. Unlike urban smog, air pollution related to forest fires can generate much higher concentrations of dangerous debris, including heavy metals. The plums generated from fires can travel vast distances depending on winds, and in the process, convene several other particulate types, not all of them natural.
In places like Spokane, Washington and Bend, Oregon particulate matter surpassed 300 parts per million several times in the least few years (5x the healthy limits). In November 2018, conditions in the California Bay Area topped 200 parts per million for several consecutive days, shutting down schools and public outdoor events.
These levels are rarely even surpassed in notoriously dirty air cities during crops burning or winter inversions layers in places like New Delhi and Beijing. Even a healthy person exposed to these levels for sustained period of time could very likely experience respiratory issues.
Fire and heavy smoke conditions may warrant a mask with higher filtration capacity like the Elipse P100 mask. It has two large replaceable filters and adjustment straps, which are both important if you plan on wearing the mask more than once.
If you’re looking for the same level of protection (100% particulate filtration), but may only need a mask for a single day, you can’t go wrong with the less stylish . Compared to your typical dust mask, this model is shaped like a small cup, giving you room to breathe. It also fits nicely under the lower chin and provides a nice seal after the two adjustable straps are tightened. I travel with this mask also because it’s packable and gets the job done for a day or two.[easyazon_image align="center" height="364" identifier="B001BXRRH4" locale="US" src="https://survivalgearist.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/31L3k1KJAIL.jpg" tag="survivalgearist-ns-20" width="500"]
|Limitations of efficiency: Masks can’t filter nitrogen oxide (NO2). Contact your state representative for help on that! They also cannot filter our hazardous gases like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein. In other words, you’re never fully protected from gases even if you wear masks that filter 100% particulate matter (P100), so please exercise caution and limit outdoor time when conditions are severe.|
Fit and Shape
No mask can be effective if it doesn’t fit well. A suitable comparison might be an open window on a cold window night. If there is a passage way, particulate matter will find a way and slip through the opening and eventually into your lungs and bloodstream. I often see commuters wearing surgical masks during poor air quality days, but this does very little because the mask must seal to your skin. To achieve this fit, it’s important to look for at least two of the three features: at least two straps, adjustments (for tightening), and a smart ergonomic design that fits most faces for a tight seal.
You are correctly wearing a mask when it is tightly fastened and pressure can be felt on all edges of the mask. Thus, it is very important to find a mask to fits the contours of the face and jawline.
[easyazon_link identifier="B07H7VGPWN" locale="US" tag="survivalgearist-ns-20"]FIGHTECH’s N99 mask mask may lack two straps but the ear loops keep the mask in place and can be adjusted. Neoprene may seem like an odd material for an air mask given its permeability, but it helps regulate moisture. The multiple filters (10-pack) also help with moisture control and can improve air intake and exhalation rate, making this a good choice for biking.
Another option with a few more varieties of color is the Basecamp N95 mask. The the lower portion of the mask extends below and beyond the chin and the aluminum nose clip prevents downward slipping. Velcro adjustments make this easy to adjust, but it may lose its friction over time.
|Limitations of fit: Because fit and seal are so important, masks for children are not considered effective by most public health departments. Similarly, if you’re sporting a Grizzly Adams beard, it will be more challenging to find a tight seal.|
Breathable & Refillable
What’s the point of an air pollution mask if you can’t breathe inside of one? Multiple filters can help increase the intake of air. Dual filters placed between the nose and mouth allow for more air to flow in the mask and, most importantly, helps avoid the feeling of breathing into a paper bag.
There are several masks that meet the criteria above and offer more than one filter. One important consideration to note is that filters need changing. Just like an air filter in your home or in your car, gunk can build up and filtration will actually slow when accumulated debris has lodged itself into the tiny fibers that make up filters.
Filters should be replaced after 30 to 40 hours of wear-time, or at least 30 days after opening plastic that contains the mask. Buying a mask that comes stock with replaceable filters is not only convenient, but it’s also necessary if you plan on wearing the mask for several days.
The 3M half-piece respirator 6291/07002 comes bundled with additional filters. It’s lightweight and comes in small, medium, and large if you’re purchasing for the whole family.
The 3M Rugged Comfort mask is slightly more expensive though has some creative design details that make this one of our top choices. The valve for exhalation is downward facing, which pushes air out to the bottom of the mask before extinguishing it out of the mask. This helps prevent fogging (if you wear glasses) and excess moisture build-up. (You’ll need to purchase these filters separately).
So let’s review what makes a good air pollution mask: filters 95% or more of particulate matter, fits and can be easily adjusted, has multiple filters, and filters can be replaced.
If a mask doesn’t meet all of these requirements, then make sure it’s a temporary mask and you limit your outdoor exposure and refrain from any activity that might increase your respiratory rate. Ultimately, a mask is only as good as its fit. So if you plan to walk, bike, or run in mask, think about comfort and adjustments, as well as efficiency.
Living in the Western United States and also occasionally traveling to some of the most polluted cities, I keep two masks on rotation. When I travel to New Delhi or Beijing for a day or two, I can get by with 3M’s easily packable, 3M’s 8293 P100. Though when I’m commuting everyday or working outside in hazy wildfire smoke, I opt for a less cumbersome and more comfortable mask such as the Elipse mask. I also wear glasses, and the low-profile mask doesn’t interfere with my vision or cause too much fogging. The other 3M masks above offer the same efficiency and adjustable features, and some even come stocked with multiple filters.
|Name||Price||Filters (#)||Replaceable||Adjustments||Comfort rating|
|Elipse GVS SPR457 P100||$26.25||2||Yes||Two overhead straps||High|
|3m 8293 P100||$10.99||1||No||Two overhead straps||Low|
|Fighttech N99||$14.95||2||Yes||Ear straps||High|
|Basecamp N95||$14.95||2||Yes||Ear straps||High|
|3M Respirator 6291||$29.39||2||Yes||Two overhead straps||Medium|
|3M’s Rugged Comfort||$20.95||2||Yes||3-strap system||Medium|