These Breathable Face Masks Will Actually Keep You Cool and Comfortable
By now, you know that wearing a reusable face mask while out in public is an absolute must to help slow the spread of COVID-19. After a year of masking, you’ve also probably figured out that not all face masks are made equally: Some are lightweight and breathable, while others aren’t so convenient. If you’re an athlete, an essential worker, or a glasses-wearer, don’t sweat it—you’ve got options!
The best breathable face masks don’t sacrifice safety for airflow; instead, they use shape and material to their advantage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cloth face masks made from tightly woven fabric with at least two (and preferably three) layers of material. Most importantly, they should snugly cover the mouth and nose, which prevents respiratory droplets, the main driver of COVID-19’s spread, from leaving or entering your face mask.
What are most breathable face mask materials?
According to the CDC, you should opt for masks made from breathable fabric—that is, ones made from cloth and not materials like leather and plastic, which do not properly filter the air. Other dense fabrics that technically allow airflow, like denim, are also much less breathable.
Thankfully, most breathable fabrics are effective as long as they have a high thread count. Any tightly woven fabric will do the trick; the CDC recommends cotton, and research also points to silk and polypropylene as materials that can actually repel respiratory droplets. Athletic fabrics like spandex have also been shown to be effective against respiratory droplets, but only when layered.
How to choose a breathable face mask
Picking a lightweight face mask depends on a few key factors. Here’s what to do when considering your next covering.
1. Consider when you’ll wear it. Think about what you plan on doing while you have your mask on. Exercising and working during a retail job, for example, might require two different options. Your covering should keep you both dry and comfortable the entire time. While cotton is generally a great option, it “can be thick, thus making it difficult to breathe in while exercising or in warm weather,” says Nate Favini, M.D., M.S., medical lead at healthcare startup Forward.
Dr. Favini recommends moisture-wicking fabrics, like ones used in activewear, for exercise or particularly hot weather because they dry quickly when exposed to liquids like sweat. Per the CDC, moist masks should be replaced ASAP.
2. Perform the light test. “In this new COVID-19 reality, you can find masks of every imaginable fabric,” says Iahn Gonsenhauser, M.D., M.B.A., chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. To tell the safe from the ineffective, you should perform a simple light test. “If you can see daylight between fibers, the weave is too loose and multiple layers are necessary.” The CDC also warns against masks with filters or vents, which can allow respiratory droplets to leave and enter your mask.
3. Make sure it fits properly. The importance of fit can’t be overstated—it allows your mask to do its job. “Any mask that covers your mouth and nose, fits comfortably so that you don’t have to touch it often, and is of a multi-layered or tightly woven material will do the job,” Dr. Gonsenhauser says. Also consider its straps; around-the-ear ones are great for athletes who plan to slip their mask on and off, while tie-back ones are ideal for shift workers who wear their mask for hours at a time.
In the end, any breathable face mask that follows CDC guidelines will help protect both you and others from COVID-19, especially as the weather warms up and we get outside again. The lightweight-but-effective face masks below are the best of the best.
Additional reporting by Sanah Faroke
You don’t have to sacrifice safety for airflow.