Thanksgiving is coming. Christmas is coming. Some of us have travel plans, and we need to travel as safely and responsibly as possible. Those of us trying to minimize risk want to know: what are the best face masks we can buy before flying?
I’ll start by saying, there is no one face mask that is the best for absolutely everyone. One example is comfort: if your mask is uncomfortable, will you be able to wear it consistently on a long flight?
Some masks don’t have great seals. Even if the filtration is flawless, the air coming through the gaps will be unfiltered. Other masks that initially perform well might have design flaws that only reveal themselves after some use.
Wearing a face mask is part of my job. I’ve been wearing masks since mid-March, and use an array of different masks to accomplish different goals.
I’ve gone through almost every kind of face mask there is on my path to perfecting the blend between comfort, usability, effectiveness, and price. This means that I’ve figured out how best not to compromise on face masks.
Which Face Masks Are Most Effective at Protecting Me?
- N100/N99/N95/R95/P100/P99/P95 masks: These are the pinnacle of face masks. As they have the highest quality filters, and are constantly in short supply, they tend to be the most expensive. Consider that they’re in dire need for frontline medical workers and other essential personnel before purchasing. You can verify that your mask is NIOSH approved here.
- FFP2/KN95/P2/DL2/DS2 masks: These are the foreign versions of N95 masks. The easiest to find are the KN95 masks, the Chinese version of N95 masks. Quality can vary based on which brand you buy, but tests conducted by 3M have shown similar performance to N95 masks. You can verify the authenticity of your foreign-made mask here.
- Surgical masks: Though these are primarily designed to protect those around you, they do offer some level of protection. They are not designed to be reused.
- Cloth masks: Sorry guys, cloth masks are not really designed to protect you. You can buy some masks with a bit of protection; 3-ply cloth masks protect you better than 1 or 2-ply. One downside is that they might be warmer to wear. Good thing airplanes tend to be cold anyways.
Comfort of Face Masks
Regardless of what kind of face mask you end up buying, one factor that is often overlooked but vital is comfort.
I’ve definitely worn face masks that, after tugging on my ears all day, felt like they were eating away at my skin. Yet, those same face masks fit loosely for my girlfriend.
Since you’re most likely going to buy your face mask over the internet, it’s important to try them on for fit and comfort before you get on your next flight.
4 hours enroute, after getting to the airport 2 hours early, isn’t a great time to have a strong desire to light your face mask on fire.
Face Masks With Straps Around your Ears or Around your Head?
Face masks come with two types of straps: around the ears or around the head. They both have their upsides and downsides.
Around-the-ear face masks are the easiest to take on and off. This is great in a setting where you need flexibility, like walking outside or eating at a restaurant.
If you know you’re going to be wearing a face mask for an extended period of time, you ears WILL start to hurt after awhile. It’s inevitable.
Around the head/neck face masks are great; you can wear them practically endlessly without discomfort, assuming they’re not too tight. I’ve personally worn them on 12+ hour flights with no issues.
They are a bit more difficult to move out the way, but that’s a compromise I’m easily willing to take. Plus, they tend to seal better.
Size of Your Face Mask
Obviously, the size is very important for the fit and comfort of your face masks. Faces come in all shapes and sizes, and luckily, so do face masks.
Cloth masks tend to have a greater range of fit, but I’d caution that quality seems to vary enormously.
Medical masks are usually very malleable and can be tailored to most faces.
N95 and KN95 masks must be fitted to your face for maximal effectiveness. If you decide on purchasing these, make sure to check the fit before you leave.
Do I Absolutely Need an N95 Mask?
Something I would consider heavily when deciding whether to obtain an N95 mask is the limited availability of the masks. They are critically needed for health care workers and medical responders.
That being said, if you are in a high-risk category (or you are in contact with someone who is), I would highly consider using N95 masks as another level of protection. This should apply not just to traveling, but to all exposure to the outside world.
As I stated previously, KN95 masks are another good option. KN95 masks, the Chinese version of N95 masks, provide similar protection levels. Plus, they are readily available. I personally use KN95 masks when I travel and work as an airline pilot.
My Personal Preference
This year has been tough on all of us. We’ve all learned to completely change our way of life. Part of that is accepting that wearing masks is now part of our safety culture, just like wearing seatbelts.
I choose what kind of mask I use based on the environment. Here’s my strategy:
- Outside environment: surgical or cloth face masks.
- I don’t need to protect myself as much in outdoor environments with better air circulation.
- Indoor environment: KN95 face masks.
- When the air isn’t renewed constantly, a KN95 face mask is the only one that ensures maximum protection.
- Airplane cockpit: surgical mask.
- As both pilots are required to wear face masks at my company, and the air in airplanes is completely renewed every 2-3 minutes, the environment is safe enough for a surgical mask.
- Short flights: around the ear KN95 face masks.
- On a short flight, it’s cumbersome to take your mask on and off momentarily when eating or drinking.
- Long flights: around the head KN95 face masks.
- I’m more meticulous about keeping my mask on my face and sealed over long flights. Around the head face masks are just more comfortable.
Note: I do receive commission if you click a link and purchase one of the aforementioned face masks. I own every type of face mask listed and my reviews are 100% unbiased and based only on my experience and extensive reading of studies.