How do you know what makes a good face mask?
Learn how to recognize which face masks are actually effective with these five critical features that can make the difference between protection from airborne pollutants and a false sense of security.
1. Is this mask certified?
Although certification standards vary across the world, the Chinese KN95 and European Union (EU) FFP2 standards are among the most widely accepted certifications globally. Both standards providea reliable baseline for assessing the filtration efficiency of an effective face mask.
The KN95 certification is among the most stringent tests and is based on the Chinese national standard GB2626-2019.1 Masks tested according to this standard are divided into the following levels according to their tested filtration efficiency of particulate matter down to 0.3 microns:
- KN90: filters at least≥ 90% of particulate matter
- KN95: filters at least≥ 95% of particulate matter
- KN100: filters at least≥ 99.97% of particulate matter
The filtering facepiece (FFP) standard is a similarly rigorous test based on the EN 149:2001+A1:2009 standard recognized by the European Union under the Personal Protective Equipment Regulation (EU) 2016/425.2,3
The FFP standard assigns face masks one of the following ratings:
- FFP1: filters at least ≥ 80% of particulate matter
- FFP2: filters at least ≥ 94% of particulate matter
- FFP3: filters at least ≥ 99% of particulate matter
The IQAir Mask is both KN95-certified and FFP2-certified, filtering airborne particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter with 95% efficiency. Each IQAir Mask is also imprinted with applicable KN95 and FFP2 certification standard information to confirm that the mask has been tested and to help consumers avoid ineffective counterfeits.
The Chinese KN95 and European FFP2 standards are also widely considered equivalent to the N95 standard used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which the IQAir Mask also meets.4,5
Does a mask have to be certified to be effective?
A mask doesn’t have to be certified to be effective.
But a lack of certification can indicate that a mask has not been rigorously tested to filter the kinds of particles it’s meant to help protect its wearer against. This means that the wearer can’t be certain that the mask is providing much protection at all.
A lack of testing also means that a mask is likely not effective against infectious airborne aerosols, such as those associated with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
Infectious aerosols can be as small as 0.05-0.15 microns, and masks not rated KN95, FFP2, or N95, such as dust masks, typically filter a negligible amount of these aerosols. Well-designed KN95, FFP2, or N95 masks are much moreeffective against infectious airborne aerosols, filtering up to 95% of these aerosols.6,7
The IQAir Mask exceeds both of these standards with a multi-layer filter medium comprising dense layers of electrostatically charged fibers that can help block both airborne particles and airborne infections from entering your respiratory system.
Here’s how the multi-layer design works:
- Top layer: filters larger particles
- Middle layer: filters smaller particles
- Inner layer: allows moisture and CO2 to escape
However, it’s also important to note that not all certified face masks are actually filtering out 95% of particles during use in live conditions, where fit and proper usage matter.8
Any certification is achieved in ideal, controlled laboratory settings designed to imitate real-life situations as closely as possible. Certification testing can assure the wearer of a high degree of protection, but reducing exposure or getting rid of the source of air pollution or infectious aerosols is paramount to full protection.
2. Is this mask leak-proof?
If a mask doesn’t fit well and lets air escape when you breathe, the protective effect of the mask is greatly compromised.
This is because airborne particles and infectious aerosols can seep into openings around the mask where it doesn’t sit flush with your skin – this is known as total inward leakage (TIL).9 If a tested mask has high TIL, it may not achieve anywhere close to its full filtration efficiency.
Leakage can also be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Air that escapes when you exhale can fog up goggles or glasses, reducing visibility in ways that can be especially dangerous if the wearer is driving or using heavy machinery.
Unfortunately, masks, including many KN95, FFP2,and N95 masks, are not specifically designed with this consideration in mind, allowing air to leak in and out especially around the nose and cheek areas. This can be especially problematic if the wearer has a prominent nose bridge or a face shape that’s longer or wider than average.
Choose a mask that’s designed to fit a variety of face shapes and that can at least be adjusted to fit properly.
IQAir Mask uses Soft seal bidirectional, elasticmaterial to fully seal the edges of the mask and help ensure that air pollution doesn’t penetrate the mask’s breathing space. This anti-leakage design results in:
- a tight fit for a variety of facial contours
- less fogging of goggles, glasses, and other eyewear
- reduced pressure on the face
For those who may still encounter leakage, Soft seal material on the IQAir Mask can also be cut or modified to fit higher or more prominent nose bridges.
3. Is it easy to breathe through the material?
Another feature of an effective mask that can be worn safely over a long period of time is low respiratory resistance. This refers to how much a mask restricts the flow of air during inhalation and exhalation when it’s worn.
Masks with high respiratory resistance do not cause oxygen deficiency, increase the risk of symptoms for people with heart or lung conditions, or reduce lung capacity during exercise.10,11
But these masks can make the wearer feel as if it’s more difficult to breathe, discouraging them from wearing masks even when doing so provides significant protection against air pollution or airborne infections.
Low respiratory resistance means that the wearer does not feel any more difficulty breathing than usual when wearing the mask. There are three major benefits to low respiratory resistance in an effective mask:
- ease of air exchange between the CO2 you breathe out and the filtered air you breathe in, ensuring adequate ventilation and oxygen intake
- reduction of moisture and CO2 buildup within the mask, preserving the efficiency and strength of mask filtration materials
- increased comfort due to reduced perception of difficulty breathing, which can encourage people to wear masks for protection during periods of heavy air pollution or airborne infection transmission
Respiratory resistance is typically related to the thickness and composition of filtration material used in a mask design.
For example, mask material manufactured to be very thick in order to meet a high certification standard can increase the amount of respiratory resistance you’ll experience when you breathe in and out, reducing the amount of oxygen and CO2 exchange necessary to breathe without restriction.
Some masks use respirator valves to overcome this design problem. This is intended to allow CO2 and moisture to escape during exhalation while preventing airborne pollutants from entering the mask during inhalation. However, respirator valves render a mask useless for two-way protection against airborne infection.
Although a properly fitting mask will protect a person from inhaling infectious airborne aerosols, a person carrying virions from an infectious respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2 or the flu virus can produce infected aerosols and exhale them into ambient air as the respirator valve opens.12
This means anyone nearby is exposed to these airborne aerosols, and their risk of infection is much higher in the absence of a protective mask or vaccination against infectious diseases like COVID-19 or the flu.
Many KN95, FFP2, and N95 masksthat do not use respirator valves experience significant breathability problems. Though their filtration efficiency may be high, their high resistance during inhalation and exhalation can make them uncomfortable for even short-term use.
The three-layered IQAir Mask filtration design meets KN95, FFP2, and N95efficiency standards and achieves low expiratory and inspiratory resistance without a respirator valve.
Third-party laboratory tests have shown that, even in the absence of a respirator valve, respiratory resistance of the IQAir Mask (measured in pascals, an international unit of measurement for air pressure) is far lower than what is required to meet the globally recognized standards (test results pictured below).
Pictured: IQAir Mask respiratory resistance test results (green) in contrast to the maximum allowable resistance per KN95 (orange) and surgical mask (yellow) standards Source: IQAir
4. Does this mask stay cool and dry during use?
Many masks are made of material that’s too thick to allow heat and moisture from exhalation to escape, resulting in high levels of warmth and humidity within the mask’s breathing space. This is not only uncomfortable but also can cause mask filtration material to deteriorate, reducing the mask’s filtration efficiency.
Also, if a mask doesn’t fit properly, heat and moisture leaking out of the edges of the mask make the wearer’s face damp and warm, potentially smearing or smudging facial cosmetics.
IQAir Mask 3D Filter Dome technology, based on a flexible melt-blown cage design often used in high-efficiency masks, reduces direct contact between mask material and skin by raising the filtration material away from the face with a sturdy yet portable design.13
This ensures that both heat and moisture can be released through a greater surface area on the mask, reducing CO2 and moisture build-up within the wearer’s breathing space.
5. Is the mask comfortable?
Most face masks use thin elastic straps that can press against a wearer’s head, ears, eyes, and cheeks.
This can make wearing a mask uncomfortable and leave indentation marks that many find unsightly or embarrassing. It can also discourage people from using them even when doing so would provide critical protection from air pollution and airborne infections.
With QuickStrap technology, IQAir Mask can be worn in several ways with adjustable tightness options:
- A plastic hook attached to the left strap can allow the two straps to be joined together behind the head, securing the mask tightly and helping ensure a firm fit around the face. Several different grooves are built into the hook for adjustable tightness based on head size.
- Two silicone sliders can be moved along each strap to secure mask fit even more firmly. This can help if the mask is still loose after adjusting the straps and joining them with the hook.
- The hook and silicone sliders are both removable so that wearers can further adjust the mask for the firmest and most comfortable fit.
Pictured: Elastic strap of IQAir Mask, including removable silicone sliders and plastic hook with several grooves for adjustable tightness. Source: IQAir
These five considerations are crucial for choosing a face mask that will truly provide protection from air pollution and airborne infections. Refer to these tips the next time you’re considering purchasing a protective mask in anticipation of wildfires, airborne infection transmission, and days when particle pollution is high.