How to Choose the Best Cloth Face Mask for You
Photo: Sarah Kobos
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How to Choose the Best Cloth Face Mask for You

Any mask is better than no mask to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and now that everyone and their grandparents are selling cloth face masks, you have options. Tens of thousands of them. (Around 15,000 listings on Etsy alone.) As with regular cloth face masks, the key is to create multiple layers and a good seal. We consulted a range of authorities, from fashion designers and textile experts to aerosol scientists and infectious disease specialists, to zero in on the small but crucial design details that have an outsize impact on how a mask fits and feels, and—by extension—how it helps prevent person-to-person viral transmission.

Because how well a mask works involves myriad factors (the size of a person’s head and facial features, their behaviors and environment), we couldn’t possibly identify the most effective mask for every person and every situation. Based on extensive research and preliminary fit and comfort testing, however, we do have a few recommendations for adjustable masks that we think will cover most faces comfortably and work well when worn properly. After all, the “best” cloth face mask is the one you will wear and not fuss with. (For advice on the best cloth face masks for children, see our buying guide just for kids.)

Banana Republic Face Mask

Banana Republic Face Mask

Adjustable ear loops, stretchy fabric

The slim elastic ear loops on this mask are gentler on ears than most thicker varieties. Cord stoppers, a sturdy nose-bridge wire, and a swimsuit-material-like outermost layer mean this mask should mold easily to most faces. Its two-ply construction is already quite dense, but you can insert an additional layer (not included) into its filter pocket. The easy-on, easy-off design is great for quick errands, but the fabric can feel hot with extended wear.

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$32 $27 from Banana Republic

deal price includes shipping

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Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask

Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask

Ear loops and headband options in one

This triple-layer poly-cotton mask is lingerie-material light but office-appropriate sleek. With cord stops on the ear loops, and a soft but effective nose-bridge wire, you can easily get a good fit before running out the door. Use the enclosed back-of-the-head hook, if you like, to relieve ear pressure. An easy-access pocket in this mask accommodates a filter (not included).

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*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.

Kitsbow Face Mask

Kitsbow Face Mask

Heavy and lightweight options, secure headbands

The solid-color versions of this two-ply cone mask have the substantive, tight-weave feel of cotton-canvas painter’s pants; the plaids are made of the lighter performance fabric used in the cycling apparel the company is known for. Each has a pocket for a filter (two included). The elastic headbands stay put on hair better than most, and together with the pliable nose-bridge wire and a choice of three sizes, they allow for a nice, close fit.

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Proper Cloth The Everyday Mask

Proper Cloth The Everyday Mask

Lots of options and a tall silhouette

This two-layer cotton mask offers more options than most—not only in color, but also in fit, fasteners, and layers: Choose from small or large sizes as well as designs with adjustable ear loops or around-the-head elastic bands; plus, a washable filter (included) slips in easily when you need it. The nose-bridge wire keeps its shape, the chin coverage is better than most, and the cinched sides of this mask allow the fabric to tent up higher off the face, providing more breathing room. (If you're between sizes, size up and adjust the fasteners to achieve a better seal.)

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Rendall Co. Sentry

Rendall Co. Sentry

Generous pleats, adjustable drawstrings

This all-cotton, two-layer mask feels like a denim shirt. Thanks to pleats and a spaghetti tie looped into a drawstring system, it can adjust to fit most heads and facial features, including those more generously sized. (A tester with a full beard found this mask fit him best.) A filter pocket accommodates additional layers of your choice (none included), and there’s a sturdy nose-bridge wire.

Buying Options

Understandably, most people would prefer a mask that fits like a proverbial glove, traps all incoming and outgoing viruses, lets you gulp in fresh air with abandon, and feels as if it isn’t even there. Unfortunately, that mask doesn’t exist. Shopping for a cloth face mask is an exercise in compromises. Generally speaking, the better a mask blocks respiratory droplets, the harder it is to breathe through, said Bryan Ormond, an assistant professor of textile engineering at North Carolina State University’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center. Conversely, the easier it is to breathe through a mask, the less potentially protective it is. The best a non-medical mask can do is align closely to the curves of your face, cover your nose and mouth, and feel comfortable enough that you won’t fuss with it as you go about your day. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the latest research on cloth face coverings, help you build a collection of masks that suit your various needs, and explain how prioritizing fit and comfort can lead to better protection—for others and even, possibly, for yourself.

Above, we’ve linked to in-stock masks with design details that the experts we interviewed said they looked for when shopping for themselves, and that we found greatly impacted fit and comfort. These features include moldable nose-bridge wires; cord stoppers, adjustable headbands, or ties; and filter pockets. We’ll continue to take notes as we slog through supermarket runs, workouts, and (for some of us) daily commutes and eight-hour workdays. We’ll throw the masks into the wash and field feedback from our readers and long-term testers. And we’ll keep searching for promising options based on the latest science and people’s evolving needs as the seasons change. As long as masks remain a staple in daily life, we’ll be here with updates.

Everything we recommend

Banana Republic Face Mask

Banana Republic Face Mask

Adjustable ear loops, stretchy fabric

The slim elastic ear loops on this mask are gentler on ears than most thicker varieties. Cord stoppers, a sturdy nose-bridge wire, and a swimsuit-material-like outermost layer mean this mask should mold easily to most faces. Its two-ply construction is already quite dense, but you can insert an additional layer (not included) into its filter pocket. The easy-on, easy-off design is great for quick errands, but the fabric can feel hot with extended wear.

Buying Options

$32 $27 from Banana Republic

deal price includes shipping

Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask

Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask

Ear loops and headband options in one

This triple-layer poly-cotton mask is lingerie-material light but office-appropriate sleek. With cord stops on the ear loops, and a soft but effective nose-bridge wire, you can easily get a good fit before running out the door. Use the enclosed back-of-the-head hook, if you like, to relieve ear pressure. An easy-access pocket in this mask accommodates a filter (not included).

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.

Kitsbow Face Mask

Kitsbow Face Mask

Heavy and lightweight options, secure headbands

The solid-color versions of this two-ply cone mask have the substantive, tight-weave feel of cotton-canvas painter’s pants; the plaids are made of the lighter performance fabric used in the cycling apparel the company is known for. Each has a pocket for a filter (two included). The elastic headbands stay put on hair better than most, and together with the pliable nose-bridge wire and a choice of three sizes, they allow for a nice, close fit.

Buying Options

Proper Cloth The Everyday Mask

Proper Cloth The Everyday Mask

Lots of options and a tall silhouette

This two-layer cotton mask offers more options than most—not only in color, but also in fit, fasteners, and layers: Choose from small or large sizes as well as designs with adjustable ear loops or around-the-head elastic bands; plus, a washable filter (included) slips in easily when you need it. The nose-bridge wire keeps its shape, the chin coverage is better than most, and the cinched sides of this mask allow the fabric to tent up higher off the face, providing more breathing room. (If you're between sizes, size up and adjust the fasteners to achieve a better seal.)

Buying Options

Rendall Co. Sentry

Rendall Co. Sentry

Generous pleats, adjustable drawstrings

This all-cotton, two-layer mask feels like a denim shirt. Thanks to pleats and a spaghetti tie looped into a drawstring system, it can adjust to fit most heads and facial features, including those more generously sized. (A tester with a full beard found this mask fit him best.) A filter pocket accommodates additional layers of your choice (none included), and there’s a sturdy nose-bridge wire.

Buying Options

The research

Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Kitsbow face mask.
The Kitsbow Face Mask in (clockwise from top left) Killington blue, dry grass, buff, and Providence grey. Photo: Sarah Kobos

Staying home or staying at least 6 feet apart from others is the best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. That goes for everyone, not just people who know or suspect they’re sick, because as a June 2020 review points out, as many as 45% of people infected with the coronavirus might not show any symptoms. But it’s hard to predict whether social distancing will be possible in any given situation. So if you need to be out in public for any reason, you should wear a mask. (An increasing number of states and businesses are mandating exactly that.)

By acting as physical barriers, cloth face coverings can help prevent wearers from transmitting large respiratory droplets to the people around them. Studies, including this frequently cited 2012 paper, have also suggested that a quality face mask may help reduce the chances of the wearer inhaling smaller droplets, called aerosols, expelled by other people, too, though that notion is less established and research is ongoing.

Critically, wearing a mask isn’t an excuse to ignore social distancing, just as wearing a seatbelt doesn’t justify reckless driving. As with any personal protective equipment, cloth face masks “are the last line of defense in the hierarchy of controls,” said Ormond, the textile engineer at North Carolina State. “So, while you are wearing a mask, you still need to social distance and practice good hygiene (handwashing). All of these interventions work in tandem to give us the best chance of gaining control of the situation.”

Scientists are in the midst of determining what materials and construction, exactly, make for the most protective cloth face masks. But past and current findings, plus common sense, can provide clues. As Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute explained: “In the absence of randomized controlled studies for SARS CoV-2, you have to look at principles that have been found by clinical effectiveness and lab studies, put it all together, and make sensible recommendations.”

How cloth face masks compare to N95 respirators and surgical masks

An N95 respirator is specifically constructed to block the inhalation of particulates, including virus-size droplets. It should fit the curves of your face without gaping, and it consists of special material that filters out at least 95% of airborne matter the size of 0.3 micron. An N95 respirator mask’s fibers are electrostatic and nonwoven (haphazardly arranged), which makes it harder for particulates to enter. Some N95 masks, including Wirecutter’s picks in our guide to respirators, include valves for easier exhalation. That feature can be great during wildfire smoke conditions. But as the World Health Organization explained to us in an email, such valves can be problematic when the focus is preventing the spread of the coronavirus because by design they can let unfiltered air escape.

Unlike respirator masks, surgical masks are not meant to create an airtight fit on your face. Gaps by the cheeks mean that drastically more droplets can escape or invade. A recent Northeastern University paper (PDF) reports that a surgical mask sealed to the wearer with a band cut from a pair of nylon stockings went from blocking out 50% to 75% of small particles (less than 0.3 micron) to blocking 90%.

Thanks to a surgical mask’s layers of nonwoven materials, it’s better than a cloth mask at blocking droplets—if the person wears that surgical mask snug to the face. But people rarely, if ever, do. As an April 2020 study suggests, a well-constructed cloth mask that fits well can block droplets better than a surgical mask that doesn’t fit well.

Four Masks we recommend.
Photo: Sarah Kobos

The basic tenets of a face covering are fairly straightforward. “You want the mask to go over your nostrils and your mouth in such a way that it doesn’t slip off,” said Robin Patel, past president of the American Society for Microbiology. Even a bandana tied around your head is better than nothing. But if you want to maximize the potential protection to others and possibly yourself, you might as well choose something more substantial. When you cough without a mask on, aerosols fly out of your mouth as far as about 8 feet on average, according to a June 2020 study. Tie on that bandana, and outgoing aerosols get only as far as 3 feet 7 inches on average, the authors found. Wear a well-fitted two-layer quilting cotton mask, and those droplets, on average, stop short at a mere 2½ inches.

To find the best mask for you, focus on fit and comfort, and protection should follow (assuming you wear it properly, of course, and also practice social distancing whenever possible).

Fit: Creating a protective seal

For a mask to work to its fullest potential, it has to fit. “When there are large gaps for the droplets to come out, it doesn’t matter how good the filter is or how many layers you have,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. As research at Northeastern University suggests, a mask that conforms closely to the face can enhance performance by as much as 50% over the same mask that doesn’t.

A properly fitting mask extends vertically from the bridge of your nose (just below the eye line) to about an inch under your chin, and it stretches horizontally from cheek to cheek, or even better, as close to your ears as comfortable. “Ideally, it should cover as much of your nose and mouth as possible,” said Grace Jun, an assistant professor of fashion and disability at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Here’s what to do to make sure that happens:

Study the sizing chart. Masks are typically non-refundable; to ensure a reasonable fit, note a mask’s dimensions and then measure your face, including the inches added by any facial hair and the height of your nose, with a soft tape measure to confirm that the numbers correspond. (Some brands, like Kitsbow, provide face measurements as opposed to mask measurements.) Note, too, that a pleated mask expands when you adjust it to cover your face. For instance, the Rendall Co. Sentry mask we like is 3½ inches pleated and 6 inches expanded. When in doubt, ask customer service for detailed dimensions. If a mask is too short, it won’t stay put on your nose or chin. If it’s too tall, the edges can block your vision, poke your eyes, or hang too loose around your chin, said Jun. Too-wide masks can affect how the elastic fasteners fit around your ears or head.

Don’t fall for “one size fits all.” That one size might not fit you. For example, the one-size-fits-all Banana Republic mask we like is 6 inches tall by 8½ inches wide, whereas the one-size-fits-all Hedley & Bennett mask (which we like, except that it lacks ear-loop stoppers) is 6½ inches high by 9 inches wide. Among masks that come in multiple size options, not all size designations are created equal. “Even a quarter-inch can make a difference,” said Jun, especially if you have a wider or thinner face, a longer chin, or a higher nose bridge.

Look for a nose-bridge wire. A mask should gently hug the lines of your cheeks, dip along the sides of your nose, and curve over its bridge. A moldable wire helps a mask do that. Without that close fit, droplets can sneak in and out along the sides of your nose. You can upgrade wireless cloth masks by sewing in your own aluminum strips or even supermarket twist ties, said Juan Hinestroza, an associate professor of fiber science at Cornell University.

Consider the mask’s shape. Cone silhouettes are likely to curve to the cheeks better than a plain piece of cloth that lies flat or a rectangular mask with pleats does. That’s probably why the Northeastern University researchers have found that nylon-stocking seals often make less of a performance difference when layered over cone-shaped masks than when layered over masks of other shapes (though exactly how much of a difference may vary for different people; only one person took part in the study). “The fit was already good,” said study co-author Loretta Fernandez, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern. Cone-shape masks have vertical seams that allow the fabric to “tent up,” giving it some height like a bra cup. Depending on the placement of the straps, cone-shaped masks can fit quite nicely on the cheeks.

An illustration showing three common mask shapes: cone, pleated, and flat.
Illustration: Sarah MacReading

However, masks with pleats provide more leeway for higher nose bridges, said Michael Kaye, who teaches draping and sewing as an adjunct professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. (He chose this pleated CDC-approved pattern for his custom small-batch masks.) Compared with less generously cut cone masks, pleated masks may also feel more comfortable to some people because they allow for space between the fabric and your cheeks. If the mask’s bands don’t help seal off the sides (a common problem with pleated masks), try adding a chain of three rubber bands, as this clever technique (video) demonstrates. Or you can always use the nylon stocking trick (Figure 2 in this PDF), in which you fit a sleeve cut from pantyhose over your mask. Either way, the resulting look is not exactly IG-worthy, but it is perhaps something to consider for situations where you think you need extra protection.

Check for adjustable fasteners. A too-snug fit, one that leaves marks on your skin, may tempt you to take the mask off. For a secure fit, adjust any back-of-the-head elastic bands by either tying a knot or placing it atop a ponytail. (Adjustments to the top band are especially crucial for helping the mask fit snugly around your cheeks.) Elastic ear loops with cord stops (like those on the Banana Republic or Herschel Supply Co. masks we like) allow for a customizable fit. If your non-adjustable loops are too big, tie knots or add an appropriately sized cord-lock toggle (like this one) yourself. If you consistently find headband and ear-loop fasteners to be too tight, or if they get in the way of hearing aids, consider ties (as on the Rendall Co. mask we like); the drawback, of course, is that ties tend to loosen more easily over the course of the day.

An illustration showing three common mask features: ear loops, ties, and elastic headbands
Illustration: Sarah MacReading

Examine the fastener texture. Headbands with ridges can grip hair better without sliding, especially if your hair is straight, said Kaye. Ear loops made with elastic cords hang more easily on less-rigid ears but may make your ears feel sore after a few hours, especially if they’re too tight. If that’s your issue, experiment with “ear savers” (like these), Velcro straps, or bobby pins.

  • A person opens and closed a pleated face mask.

    Pleated masks are designed to accommodate different nose-bridge heights and chin depths. Video: Sarah Kobos

  • A person bends the top of a face mask with a nose wire.

    A wire at the top of some masks molds all around your nose to form a tighter seal. Video: Sarah Kobos

  • A person stretches a mask made of somewhat elastic material.

    Stretchy fabrics allow some masks to fit a larger range of face sizes. Video: Sarah Kobos

  • A person adjusts the ear loop size on a mask.

    Masks with toggles at the ear loops are easily adjustable for a custom fit. Video: Sarah Kobos

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Comfort: Balancing breathability with filtration

Just the idea of something obstructing your nose and mouth can be distressing—hence the appeal of lightweight, single-layer masks made of more breathable fabric. But if you’d like to protect yourself as well as others, well-fitting masks that balance breathability with filtration efficiency (the percentage of particles that a mask can block) work best, assuming you keep them on.

Protecting others is relatively easy: Almost any cloth can halt the larger-than-5-microns globules shooting from your mouth when you’re talking loudly, singing, coughing, or sneezing. But it’s snagging the 1-micron-or-smaller droplets—which can come from you or others breathing and talking at regular volume—that’s tough.

Early in the pandemic, health officials considered these tiny aerosol droplets to be less worrisome. But now experts increasingly believe that, in fact, such droplets are also important to consider—with the smallest of them hovering in the air of a poorly ventilated room for hours, just waiting to get inhaled. In October 2020, the CDC published new guidance, recognizing that “COVID-19 can sometimes be spread by airborne transmission,” and that it’s possible to be infected in a poorly ventilated indoor space by a person more than 6 feet away, or even shortly after an infected person has left the room.

There are still many unknowns, including how much of the virus a person must inhale to cause an infection, said Sarah Brooks, director of the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry and the Environment at Texas A&M University. But if you’d like to err on the side of caution, wearing a well-fitting mask with good filtration efficiency can help. Start with the features below—keeping in mind that no mask is guaranteed to provide complete protection. But if you’re struggling to leave a mask on, play around with different materials. “You need to balance comfort and risk,” said Virginia Tech aerosol scientist Linsey Marr.

Tight weaves: Your mask is like a chain-link fence. “The more thread in a given area, the more solid the barrier, the harder it is to get through,” explained North Carolina State textile scientist Bryan Ormond. As the aforementioned April 2020 study suggests, thread count (the number of vertical and horizontal threads in a square inch) matters. With droplets smaller than 0.3 micron at low flow (similar to what happens with breathing), a two-ply 80-thread-count quilting cotton displayed far less filtration efficiency than a two-ply 600-thread-count pillowcase-like material. Unfortunately, few mask makers provide thread-count information online, and you’re left with taking their word for how “sturdy” or “tightly woven” the materials they’re using are. So before you buy, make sure your mask at least has multiple layers (read on), preferably with a filter pocket (see below). When the mask arrives, hold it up to the light. “The more visible openings you see in the fabric structure, the less effective the material may be at filtering particles,” Ormond said. To bolster a mask made with loosely woven fabric, add more layers in the filter pocket so as to block more of the light coming through (but not so much that the mask feels suffocating).

Multiple layers: According to a June 2020 meta review, “multilayer masks are more protective than single layer masks,” and specifically “12- to 16-layer cotton masks” are associated with protection. (Insert laugh-cry emoji.) A more realistic goal is to aim for a minimum of three layers, including a somewhat water-resistant outer layer, a nonwoven middle layer, and, next to the skin, a comfortable inner layer. “The mask is like an obstacle course for the virus to get through. Each layer can make a difference,” said Amy Price, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab.

Generous cut: This is the rare feature that enhances both breathability and filtration. By “generous,” we don’t mean a mask that’s too big for you. It should be a well-fitting mask that’s intentionally designed with a larger surface area so that it stands “taller” on your face (to allot more space between the fabric and your nose), wider on your face (with each side stretching closer to each ear), or ideally both. This way “you have more air coming through the cloth, and that air is filtered, as opposed to air sneaking in from the sides,” said Supratik Guha, a professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, who co-authored the April 2020 study on mask materials. A simply cut flat mask creates the opposite situation: It sits close to your nose and mouth, so you have less filtered air to breathe in at any given time.

Filter pocket: Some masks, including those we like best, include at least two layers of cloth and a pocket that allows you to bolster your mask with an additional layer or two of your choice, whether it’s another piece of cloth or a sheet of nonwoven material. (Of course, you can also leave it empty.)

Nonwoven materials consist of fibers spun into a random web that is then heated to form a sheet. Slipped in between two or more fabric layers, the nonwoven material complicates the existing maze a virus needs to get through before it can reach your nose and mouth—creating “a tortuous pathway,” said Mark Losego, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech.

There are almost as many nonwoven options being studied as cloth-face-mask filters as there are masks. Stanford’s Amy Price, who co-authored a June 2020 paper on the filtration efficiency of household materials, said that the polypropylene crafting material Oly-Fun can increase particle filtration efficiency by 10% to 20% per layer. This occurs with the help of electrical charging—rubbing it with a rubber glove—which makes that viral obstacle course even more challenging, at least for 24 hours, unless conditions are extremely humid, Price said. Paper towels and tissues can increase filtering capacity by 5% to 10% per layer (again, with electrical charging). A Texas A&M University paper currently under review (here’s the preprint) notes that non-fiberglass premium anti-allergen air filters—which, like Oly-Fun, also consist of polypropylene—seem promising. Some cloth-mask makers, such as Kitsbow, include their own removable nonwoven filter layers with their masks, along with the option to buy refills.

With research on non-medical mask filters’ efficacy and, in some cases, long-term safety still in its infancy, we can’t recommend the “best” filter just yet, though we hope to as the science accumulates. In the meantime, view any specific filtration claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Like trusty T-shirts, the best masks are machine washable so they’re quickly cleaned and back in the rotation. (Every mask we recommend can tolerate laundering in a washing machine.) If you don’t have a machine, or if the mask manufacturer advises otherwise, hand washing the mask is okay, too. Always wash a new mask before wearing it for the first time.

Wash your hands after touching a worn mask and before touching anything else.

Wash your mask according to the label. (If you’ve used a polypropylene or paper filter, remove that piece first and throw it out immediately or follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.) As the CDC suggests, you can wash your mask with the rest of your clothing. In general, any laundry detergent will do, even soap. The coronavirus is easily broken down with soap and water whether it’s on your hands or a mask. “The virus is essentially genetic material wrapped up in a shell of lipids and proteins. Soap literally dissolves it away and makes it disintegrate,” said Hana Akselrod, an infectious disease physician at George Washington University. No need to use hot water: Heat can shrink some natural fabrics, and it can also hasten wear and tear over time, particularly for synthetic materials, said Cornell fabric scientist Hinestroza. Warm water is adequate (though for some masks, a cold wash is preferable—again, check the manufacturer’s instructions).

Depending on the manufacturer’s instructions, you can dry your cloth mask in the dryer or allow it to air dry. Remember, though, that heat accelerates breakdown, particularly with elastics, said Michael Kaye of FIT. Either way, make sure the mask is completely dry before you wear it again. If you decide to iron your mask, avoid ironing the elastics. “If you’re a health-care worker or otherwise work in a high-risk occupation for COVID-19 exposure, follow your workplace rules, which may include the more stringent CDC guidelines,” said Akselrod. “But in an everyday environment you can basically clean your (non-work) cloth mask as you would your usual laundry.”

  • The Banana Republic face mask in a navy color.

    The Banana Republic Face Mask in navy blue: With stretchy fabric and ear-loop toggles, this mask expands across a diverse range of facial dimensions. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Banana Republic face mask.

    The Banana Republic Face Mask in (clockwise from top left) navy blue, gray, pink, and gray. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Banana Republic face mask, profile view

    The Banana Republic Face Mask in (clockwise from top left) navy blue, gray, pink, and gray. Photo: Sarah Kobos

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  • The Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask in white.

    The Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask in white: An included clip turns this mask’s two ear loops into one headband.

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Herschel face mask.

    The Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask in black and white. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Herschel face mask, profile view.

    The Herschel Supply Co. Classic Fitted Face Mask in black and white. Photo: Sarah Kobos

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  • Two Kitsbow face masks in light peach and blue plaid.

    The Kitsbow Face Mask in buff (left) and Providence grey (right): The solid-color versions feel thicker than the plaids. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Kitsbow face mask.

    The Kitsbow Face Mask in (clockwise from top left) Killington blue, dry grass, buff, and Providence grey. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Kitsbow face mask, profile view.

    The Kitsbow Face Mask in (clockwise from top left) Killington blue, dry grass, buff, and Providence grey. Photo: Sarah Kobos

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  • A blue and yellow mask with ear loops sit on a yellow background.

    The Proper Cloth Everyday Mask in olive (left) and navy linen (right). The masks are available with back-of-head bands or ear loops, and color options are subject to change. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four people wear four different face masks.

    The Proper Cloth Everyday Mask in (clockwise from top left): light blue, blue pattern, light blue, and grey melange. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Profiles of four people wearing face masks.

    The Proper Cloth Everyday Mask in (clockwise from top left) light blue, blue pattern, light blue, and grey melange. Photo: Sarah Kobos

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  • The Rendall Co. Sentry mask

    The Rendall Co. Sentry mask in light blue chambray: An adjustable drawstring and commodious pleats accommodate larger heads and facial features. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Rendall face mask.

    The Rendall Co. Sentry mask in (clockwise from top left) summer tan linen, light blue chambray, indigo chambray, and indigo denim. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Four testers on a zoom call, wearing the Rendall face mask, profile view.

    The Rendall Co. Sentry mask in (clockwise from top left) summer tan linen, light blue chambray, indigo chambray, and indigo denim. Photo: Sarah Kobos

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With mask wearing being the new normal, you should have a few on hand. That way, you’ll always have a backup at the ready, as well as some leeway if you don’t get to the laundry as planned.

If you find a mask you love, it may be best to buy multiples of that style. You may also consider collecting a handful of different styles because each kind is more or less practical for different situations. The mask you might choose to wear for a trip to the grocery store, for example, isn’t necessarily the same type you’d reach for when exercising.

Gather a range of materials and mask shapes. And be realistic about what you’ll be willing to wear in different situations. Try a new-to-you mask on at home so that you can evaluate the fit and your comfort before wearing it in public. If you can buy more than one mask type, consider choosing one with a top layer treated in such a way as to prevent droplets from soaking in. (The Banana Republic, Herschel Supply Co., and solid-color Kitsbow masks we like all have some level of water resistance. None are waterproof.)

Include a mix of fasteners. Ear loops tend to be easy to put on and take off, which is ideal for impromptu errands and dining outside. For longer-term wear, you may want a mask with ties or headbands, which put less pressure on your ears.

Keep your masks accessible. Store them in a bin or on hooks near the door so you’re less likely to rush out without one. If you’re using filters in a mask pocket, have them at the ready, too.

Stash a spare or two in your tote or car. This way, if the one you’re wearing gets dirty or wet, you’ll have another handy. “Viruses thrive when in wet, warm materials,” said MacIntyre. “A wet mask becomes an incubator. Take it off immediately without touching the face piece and put on a new one."

Makers of non-medical masks are continually introducing new designs and improving on current lines, so we’ll be updating this guide frequently. Currently, we’re evaluating (or awaiting deliveries of) the Baggu Fabric Mask with ear loops, theGraf Lantz Zenbu Face Mask, and the Lo & Sons All Day Comfort Face Mask. These masks each meet the basic criteria we set for our search: machine washable, with at least two layers, a filter pocket or adjustable layering, and a nose-bridge wire. We are also currently assessing the Under Armour Sportsmask, which does not have a filter pocket but may be adequate for socially distanced outdoor workouts.

Tom Bihn has said it plans to add masks with filter pockets and nose-bridge wires to the current line (the existing models lack the filter pocket and are continually on backorder). The Adidas Face Cover lacks a filter pocket and a nose-bridge wire, but like the Under Armour SportsMask, we’ll test it in the context of an outdoor workout when it becomes available.

We considered scores of cloth face masks touted by friends, colleagues, bloggers, and other publications, and we also window-shopped on Instagram, Facebook, and several retailer sites before settling on the masks that we would include in our first round of testing. Ultimately, we landed on our current picks because they have the quality, the machine-washable materials, and the adjustable features that we think will allow them to fit well, feel comfortable, and offer adequate protection for most people.

That’s not to say other masks are poor options. And there are still more masks we have yet to get our hands on. Even the masks we dismissed may very well work for your particular facial features, circumstances, and preferences. The only way to know for sure is to try them on.

At the time we were writing our original draft, we couldn’t recommend the vast majority of masks sold online because they didn’t satisfy our basic criteria. The masks that we dismissed included models from many popular brands, such as Target’s Adult Fabric Face Mask (no nose-bridge wire), Everlane’s 100% Human Face Mask (no filter pocket or nose-bridge wire), and the beloved, inexpensive Old Navy pleated masks (no filter pocket or nose-bridge wire), as well as Madewell’s Non-Medical Face Mask (no filter pocket, no wire, not machine washable), and the early versions of pleated masks from Gap and Athleta (no filter pocket or nose-bridge wire).

In addition to the models that became our picks, we tried a number of other masks that met our criteria but fell short once we tried them on:

The Scout Face Mask we ordered is made of soft prewashed cotton and available in whimsical patterns, but the ear-loop elastics on the version we tried were too thick for our testers to adjust easily by knotting, resulting in gaps along the side. The pretty Hedley & Bennett Wake Up & Fight masks, made from breathable cotton or cotton-polyester, had thinner, easier-to-knot elastics but still left gaps for those testers with narrower faces. We tried the Figs Fionx Protective Face Mask only in size M/L because the S/M size was sold out at the time. The larger size turned out to be quite large (we confirmed that it can fit over an N95 respirator) albeit pleasingly soft, and the ear-loop elastics were relatively thick and difficult to adjust by knotting.

Gap’s Adult Contour Face Mask and Athleta Made to Move Mask feel nice and come in cute designs, but are too short, which caused it to slip easily down the noses of our testers when they spoke. The nose-bridge wires also don't mold well. The dapper Royal Jelly Harlem Adult Mask, which we ordered in a sturdy pink seersucker, had the same height issue. Also, its third “filter” layer is non-removable, and the mask doesn’t have a nose-bridge wire. After hearing raves about the Vistaprint RFS Mask, we gave it a try, too, but found its chin coverage quite narrow, with a tendency to ride up.

The Cottonique Elite Hypoallergenic Face Mask is constructed with the thick, soft cotton of a favorite tee. Its perforated texture enhances breathability but had us wishing for a more protective feel. The adjustable fasteners, also cotton, are gentle on the ears but can be prone to slipping.

The similarly cozy BeatBasic mask—an “Amazon’s Choice” offering with more than 12,000 reviews as of this writing—lacks a filter pocket, and its ear loops fail to offer sufficient elasticity. That Healthy Skin Glow’s mask, another “Amazon’s Choice,” satisfies all of our criteria, including ear toggles, yet leaves side gaps that we couldn’t easily adjust for.

We like the breathability and lightness of the Buff Filter Mask as well as its easily adjustable headbands (which operate similar to fanny-pack straps). But after a tester took it out on a run, the fabric, along with the filter, became completely and uncomfortably drenched. We wished that it tented up more from the skin. Admittedly, conditions had reached a humid 90 degrees that day; even so, with the material so porous, we had expected more sweat wicking. We also wished that the filter pocket stretched horizontally across the mask for added filtration efficiency.

Several testers like the two-layer Baggu Fabric Mask with ties. The all-cotton fabric is tightly woven yet breathable, and it comes with a pocket for a filter (none included) as well as a nose-bridge wire that holds its shape. But even fans of this mask noted that the ties and nose/chin coverage can be a pain to adjust.

The Outdoor Research Essential Face Mask Kit we tried is too big for small faces, even with the ear-loop toggles (a smaller size will be introduced soon, though). It took several washes to dissipate its synthetic smell and its removable filter (three included) sits in direct contact with your skin. Testers who didn’t find this to be a problem appreciated its generous sizing and breathability.

Do I need to buy a mask?

You probably already own materials you can fashion into a mask, no sewing required. The New York Times has a tutorial.

What about Buffs, neck gaiters, and face shields?

Neck gaiters, such as those from Buff, gained sudden notoriety in early August 2020 when headlines declared that wearing them was worse than wearing no mask at all. Lost in the conversation, however, was the fact that gaiters come in different materials and can be worn in different ways, which results in different degrees of protection against the release of droplets depending on how the results are measured. A Duke University study, which unintentionally sparked the ruckus, looked at one layer of a particular polyester-spandex design using a novel contraption (the actual topic of the paper). When the researchers analyzed the spray emerging from the gaiter wearer’s mouth, the threads, as the team hypothesized, seemed to have broken up the larger droplets into smaller ones, potentially making them more easily inhaled by people around the wearer. However, other researchers, using more-conventional experimental approaches, have found that gaiters—especially when worn doubled over (non-peer-reviewed preprint PDF) or, even better, with the addition of a paper towel (non-peer proof-of-concept study)—can be quite protective. As with regular cloth face masks, the key is to create multiple layers and a good seal.

One disadvantage of wearing a gaiter is that removing it can be tricky. To do so without potentially contaminating yourself, slip your hands inside at the bottom edge so that you can use the back of your hands to stretch the fabric in opposite directions and lift the garment over and off your head. Wash your hands afterward.

A face shield can protect your eyes and block big droplets from direct-to-the-face coughs and sneezes. Whether it blocks smaller droplets is a point of controversy. It doesn’t seal off the lower part of your face, after all, so theoretically droplets can drift in and out from under the shield. And a not-yet-peer-reviewed preprint issued in October 2020 by researchers at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that shields blocked only 2% of aerosols emitted by a cough simulator—worse than a drugstore-variety three-ply cloth face mask (which blocked 51%) and a single-layer polyester neck gaiter (47%). As of now the CDC does not advise using shields in place of masks, nor do many doctors. “We are only recommending face shields in special situations for our patients, such as those who have unique facial anatomy or an underlying disorder that may make mask wearing difficult,” Felicia Scaggs Huang, associate director of infection prevention and control at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told us in a June 2020 interview.

However, as several experts pointed out in May in an article for The New York Times, shields have some advantages over masks in certain situations, and certainly there are added benefits when worn in addition to masks. “Because the shield is highly reusable, they’re valuable for health-care workers who need to keep their N95 clean for longer,” said Ron Shaffer, former chief of research for the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Face shields may also be useful as extra protection for those who are wearing a cloth mask in other close-range situations.

How to prevent maskne (and related skin concerns)

“Maskne,” or face-mask-associated acne, is a reality for many people. If you consistently break out in a rash or acne when you wear a cloth face mask, look to the layer of the mask that lies closest to your face. The disperse dyes on the cloth can migrate onto skin and cause skin to become sensitized. Some synthetic fabrics, such as polyester or nylon, can impair the skin barrier and incite inflammation, said dermatologist Teresa Oranges of the University of Pisa’s wound research unit, who has written on the topic. (Microfiber may be more tolerable, though cotton, she said, “is the best material in terms of irritation prevention.”) The American Academy of Dermatology has additional tips.

Some fabrics may also chap lips. To mitigate lip irritation, before donning a mask, slick petroleum jelly onto your lips—it’s better at staying put and sealing in moisture than lip balms, said Philadelphia dermatologist Carrie Kovarik.

How to reduce glasses fogging in a face mask

Choosing a well-fitting mask, ideally with a moldable nose-bridge wire, should help alleviate the common problem of glasses or other eyewear fogging when your nose and mouth are covered with cloth. The New York Times has tips for creating a better seal between a mask and your face, leaving less room for air to escape your mask and fog your glasses. We’re currently testing a handful of anti-fog sprays, gels, and wipes against household surfactants (like baby shampoo and bar soap), and we will report back with our findings.

What if I have a respiratory condition or other disability that precludes wearing a conventional cloth mask?

Various respiratory-medicine groups recently issued a statement on this very concern. They suggest working with your doctor to find a solution that works for your situation. For instance, even if a face shield isn’t as effective as cloth face masks, wearing one is better than wearing nothing at all. As Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association pointed out, those with “underlying chronic lung disease should be able to wear a non-N95 facial covering without affecting their oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.” But, he added, doctors should approach the problem on a case-by-case basis.

For people living with others who depend on lip reading, the National Association of the Deaf provides some guidelines. Masks with see-through panels (such as these) may help with lip reading. With low-risk situations and social distancing, face shields may make communication easier; otherwise, texting can also be helpful.

What about cloth face masks for kids?

When you’re considering the delicate balance between comfort and protection, keep in mind that for children, comfort tends to win out. After all, what good is a highly efficient filter if your kid refuses to wear it? As Leonardo Trasande, a professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU School of Medicine, pointed out about cloth masks in general, “If it adds to comfort and more consistently gets people to wear a mask than they otherwise would, that’s an important factor to consider.” See Wirecutter’s guide to the best cloth face masks for kids.

  1. Hana Akselrod, MD, MPH, infectious disease physician and assistant professor of medicine, George Washington University, phone interview, July 1, 2020

  2. Sarah Brooks, PhD, director of the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry and the Environment at Texas A&M University, phone interview, June 19, 2020

  3. Lawrence Chu, MD, director of the Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab, Stanford University School of Medicine, Zoom interview, June 26, 2020

  4. Loretta Fernandez, PhD, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, phone interview, June 19, 2020

  5. Supratik Guha, PhD, professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, phone interview, June 26, 2020

  6. Juan Hinestroza, PhD, associate professor of fiber science and director of The Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at the College of Human Ecology of Cornell University, Zoom interview, July 10, 2020

  7. Grace Jun, assistant professor of fashion and disability at The New School, Parsons School of Design, New York City, and CEO of Open Style Lab, phone interview, June 23, 2020

  8. Michael Kaye, adjunct professor at FIT and founder of Michael Kaye Couture, phone interview, June 17, 2020

  9. Carrie Kovarik, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, phone interview, June 29, 2020

  10. Ryan Lively, PhD, associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech, phone interview, July 3, 2020

  11. Mark Losego, PhD, associate professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech, phone interview, July 3, 2020

  12. Linsey Marr, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering, Virginia Tech, phone interview, June 26, 2020

  13. Robert Mazzeo, PhD, associate professor of integrative physiology, University of Colorado Boulder, phone interview, June 29, 2020

  14. Raina MacIntyre, PhD, head of the Biosecurity Program, Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, and principal research fellow at Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, Zoom interview, June 28, 2020

  15. Teresa Oranges, MD, PhD, dermatologist at Anna Meyer Children’s University Hospital in Florence and at the Wound Research Unit at the University of Pisa, Zoom interview, July 13, 2020

  16. Bryan Ormond, PhD, assistant professor of textile engineering, Textile Protection and Comfort Center, Wilson College of Textiles, North Carolina State University, phone interview, June 12, 2020

  17. Robin Patel, MD, professor of individualized medicine and of microbiology at the Mayo Clinic, past president of the American Society of Microbiology, phone interview, July 6, 2020

  18. Amy Price, DPhil, senior research scientist, Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab, Stanford University School of Medicine, Zoom interview, June 26, 2020

  19. Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, phone interview, June 17, 2020

  20. Ron Shaffer, PhD, former chief of research at the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, phone interview, June 29, 2020

  21. Felicia Scaggs Huang, MD, associate director of infection prevention and control, division of infectious diseases, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Cincinnati, email interview, June 22, 2020

  22. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, professor and vice chair of pediatrics and professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU School of Medicine, author of Sicker Fatter Poorer, phone interview, June 30, 2020

  23. Eric Westman, MD, associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, phone interview, August 12, 2020

About your guide

Joanne Chen

Joanne Chen

Joanne Chen is Wirecutter’s senior staff writer reporting on sleep and, on occasion, other lifestyle topics. Previously, she covered health and wellness as a magazine editor. After an assignment forced her to sleep eight hours a day for a month, she realized that she is, in fact, a smarter, nicer person when she isn’t sleep-deprived.

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