Face masks: Which are best and which are best avoided?

Photographs: Nick Bradshaw
We’re all wearing face coverings, but most are not as effective as they should be. So what kind should you wear?

Face coverings are one of the key tools we have in slowing the spread of Covid-19. They offer not only protection against the virus by inhibiting the spread of droplets, but also reassurance for a nervous public.

But some news last week was anything but reassuring. Many face masks, it turns out, aren’t that effective. The National Standards Authority of Ireland has warned that the majority of face masks on sale do not protect against the virus. The authority has been working on a new standard for face coverings, and project leader Elizabeth O’Ferrall said most masks for sale, including designer labels and major sporting brands, do not do all they are supposed to – though she acknowledges international public health advice that “any face mask is better than no face mask”.

While all masks may look equal, some are “more equal than others” when it comes to protection, comfort and value for money. With these criteria in mind, The Irish Times assesses nine different coverings, with help of Lynda Quigley, a Dublin-based nurse.

1. Tesco disposable mask

Tesco disposable mask: €4.50 for 10. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €4.50 for 10.

We say The first thing we notice about the blue-tinged surgical masks is the price. We buy a packet of 10 for €4.50. We are pretty sure that several weeks ago the very same packets of 10 were selling in the very same shop for €2 more, a reflection perhaps of the easing of demand or the increase in supply. These masks are easy to put on and to take off and very comfortable to wear. The metal ridge means they sit more securely on the bridge of the nose and they appear to offer considerable protection both for the wearer and those around them. An obvious downside is the impact products like this have on the environment and the sight of such masks – and by no means just the ones selling in Tesco – casually discarded on streets and in parks has become one of the more dispiriting symbols of 2020, a year in which dispiriting symbols have not been in short supply.

Nurse Quigley says Yes, I would definitely buy these. The wired top for the bridge of the nose helps to secure the fit. And they are single-use. I am happy with that.

2. Martcare valved mask

Martcare valved mask: DIY shop, €3.50. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €3.50 each from a DIY shop.

We say We find this mask, complete with its fancy-looking valve, selling in a hardware shop. It is pricey but you get what you pay for, right? Certainly to our untrained eye and untrained face, it appears to give a substantial degree of protection. It fits snugly and the metal bridge and foam back secure it to our face for a considerable time. The valve means it is more breathable than some other masks.

Nurse Quigley says There is a reason these are only sold in hardware shops. They are for dust only, I would think. It took me a minute to figure out how to put it on, and it was so uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to take it off. It looks impressive but I wouldn’t buy it.

3. Great British Designer Face Masks

Great British Designer Face Masks: €20 for three from Boots. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

How much? €20 for three from Boots.

We say “In unity there is strength”, the inside of this self-styled designer mask we find on the shelves of Boots tells us. The two-layer mask has clips on the strap to allow it to be sized differently depending on the size of your head. We find the clips incredibly fiddly but our fumbling fingers might be to blame for that rather than any inherent design flaw. There is no altering the size of the actual face mask – it is only massive. That may actually be to its credit and while it probably won’t offer any more protection than other cloth masks around the edges, its coverage might give it an edge. Boots notes that the mask “does not protect you from any virus or airborne disease. This facial covering is designed to reduce the transmission of vapour droplets”.

Nurse Quigley says I had to look up who Julien MacDonald [the designer] was for a start. It is a lovely fit, fierce trendy, has great coverage and feels thick (layered) for protection. I would buy this and I like the adjustable straps on the side.

4. Pharmacy-bought surgical mask

Pharmacy-bought surgical mask: €2.50 each. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €2.50 each.

We say This mask is included as something of an historical artefact because when we bought it last March it, and three others just like it in the pack, cost us a tenner. It is certainly a well-made product, and the three layers meet the basic standards of the surgical mask. The ties are infuriating and while they mean the mask can accommodate heads of all shapes and sizes, getting the mask to securely and comfortably fit is not easy for the less nimble-fingered.

Nurse Quigley says This one feels very safe, and there is a nice grip on the nose. However, it is awkward to tie for some. I am thinking of the elderly trying to master the four strings. It has great coverage, although I don’t think you would ever get a teen to keep it on. It is single use, which gets another tick from me.

5. Lidl reusable mask

Lidl (reusable): €2.50 for 2. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €2.50 for two.

We say There are all manner of masks selling in Lidl, from the disposable ones the retailer claims it is selling at cost, to reusable ones aimed at children. Then there is this one. It has two layers – with an easily accessible gap between the two for people who want to add a third layer of protection. It is also very big. It looks strange and it felt like we were walking around with a giant bandage on our faces – like a mummy who has shed most of its wrapping. It washes well enough and while it is hardly the height of fashion, it will get the job done.

Nurse Quigley says It says it will give you up to five wears if washed at 60 degrees. I felt like I had a bandage across my face. It is nice and comfy but feels like not much protection, nice length though for coverage. The packaging also said it was “tested for harmful substances”. I am not sure what that means.

6. Disposable nuisance dust masks

Disposable nuisance dust masks: €1 for 3. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €1 for three.

We say These are another option we find in a hardware shop. There are cheap and might allow you board a bus or walk into a shop, but we have grave doubts that they offer much by way of protection from virus particles, although to be fair the makers don’t make any claims that they will.

Nurse Quigley says The clue is in the name. When on, this mask crept up my face which was definitely a nuisance. I presume it’s single-use. It says on packaging that it is not suitable for protection against respiratory bugs, literally for dust and powders. I definitely wouldn’t buy this.

7. Fashion mask

Fashion mask: €4.95, multiple pharmacies. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €4.95 each from pharmacies.

We say This “fashion mask” (there’s no brand name, but it is a type that’s widely available: black, foam and this one has a filter) pulls our ears forward in a manner which can best be described as “ridiculous”. We buy it in a pharmacy and the staff member says it can be worn all day. Ear issue aside, it’s generally good. The foamy material and tight fit are both reassuring, and the filter is impressive too, even if on one occasion we inadvertently wore it the wrong way around.

Nurse Quigley says It is made with a weird foamy material and it feels sweaty after two breaths even with the vent on the side. This is a big no from me. It is also a bit short on the chin area to pull down for full cover.

8. K95: €3:95

K95: €3:95. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €3.95 each.

We say This does seem a little on the pricey side for a disposable mask but then again it is a K95 mask, said to be the best on the market. While peer-reviewed studies on the efficacy of face masks are limited, there is evidence that these masks keep out up to 98 per cent of harmful aerosols which does make it, by far, the best option on the market. Our local pharmacist recommends it and says that, even though it is disposable, you could get three days of continuous wear out of it. We are also reassured that supplies have improved dramatically and this type of mask – once reserved for frontline healthcare workers – is now readily available. While we look ever so slightly like a duck, or at least a bird of some kind, thanks to the triangular shape of the mask, it is comfortable and we feel secure wearing it.

Nurse Quigley says It has five layers of protection and claims strengthened filtration. It is comfy if a bit loose on the ears. It says it helps filter out dust/bacteria/pollen and smoke and I would feel safe wearing this. It’s clearly for single use only.

9. Irish Sock Society

The Irish Sock Society, €4. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Photograph Nick Bradshaw

How much? €4 each.

We say It’s a safe bet the people behind these cheery Irish face masks would not have imagined at the start of the year they would be making a product like this, but they are, and we are grateful for it. The Galway-based Irish Sock Society makes it clear that what they are selling is not medical-grade personal protective equipment but it will allow you go about your business in a way which just might bring a smile to the faces of the people you meet as you do. We are reassured by the snug fit and the pocket between the two layers allows us to add a extra layer of protection.

Nurse Quigley says This is very comfortable to try on and to be fair to them there is a clear disclaimer on the packaging telling you its not a surgical mask. It acts as a barrier but doesn’t give 100 per cent protection against viruses or bacteria, so personally I wouldn’t purchase it even for the trendiness.

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