Behind the Masks: A Guide to Personal Anti-Pollution Masks and Respirators, By Ariel Leigh

For a device that does much to obscure the face, anti-pollution masks (also called “courtesy masks” or “respirator masks") are rapidly gaining in mainstream visibility. In March of this year, Vox published an article with the headline: “As air pollution gets worse, a dystopian accessory is born.” In perfect synergy, research indicates that the incidence of allergic diseases (including asthma and mast cell) has also increased globally in most industrialized countries. Poor air quality is damaging no matter who you are, but moderate levels of air pollution, pollen or other airborne agents can be outright lethal to persons who are impacted by allergic diseases as well as immunocompromised persons.

(Note: there are other reasons that a person may choose to wear a mask; all intentions to preserve health are valid.)

Some of us crunchy granola-types cringe at the thought of stocking up on bulk buys of disposable surgical masks. We don’t want to be caught up in the Catch-22 of contributing to the very pollution that is suffocating us. The onus has already been thrust on disabled folk to be the straw persons of the straw debate.

Fortunately, there have been great efforts from companies to produce multi-use, often modular, more sustainable alternatives. Even better, many of them come in unique patterns that pack as much personality as they do anti-microbial patented technology. However, this sheer enormity of choice might be overwhelming and confusing for many folks out there. But hold tight, and breathe deep. We’re going to break down some of the available options out there.

Before I list a few of these options, I want to highlight a few qualities that I believe masks should have. Not every mask I use fits all of these guidelines; so there may be some exceptions on a case-by-case basis, depending on your needs.

  1. Masks, ideally, should be equipped with a carbon filter. Activated carbon is effective at filtering irritable agents. However, be advised to check what the source of the carbon is. Some carbon is derived from bamboo or from coconut, which may trigger those with allergies or mast cell reactions.

  2. Masks, ideally, should be able to form a tight seal. You want all of your air flow to be able to be filtered through the mask.

  3. Masks, ideally, should be rated by an independent third party for compliance with your regional air quality standard. (In the US, where I’m based, this is the N99 Standard of Particulate Filtration.)

 Bearing those in mind, let’s take a brief tour of masks!

Bandanas

Beloved by cyclists, the biker bandana is a quick and dirty way to bar grit from your airways. Most of these bandanas are made from microfiber, a synthetic fiber praised for its qualities of moisture repellancy and filtering. While products such as Air Bandit and Bandit Scarf have upped the ante with incorporating a carbon filter into the design, a simple bandana or tube-neck scarf can do wonders for a person with mild sensitivities or on a low pollen day.

Pros:

  • Easy to wear: This is perhaps the simplest and most comfortable solution.

  • Easy to modify: I upgraded my simple bandana by incorporating valves to combat humidity!

  • Easy to carry: I always keep a spare bandana in my bag, just in case.

Cons:

  • Longevity: Bandanas don’t hold up for the long haul; mine pictured here is practically shredded in the back.

  • Minimal protection: Microfiber alone isn’t enough to protect most sensitive persons; though you may choose to incorporate a carbon filter of your own or to purchase a more “enhanced” bandana, such as the Bandit.

  • Textile dermatitis: While most microfibers are rated safe for persons with chemical sensitivities, skin allergies to man-made fibers may make this option a deterrent.

Velcro-strap Mask

My personal favorite is the velcro-strap mask! This is the mask I always come back to. This is my ol’ faithful. The modular base model of the velcro mask, including the Respro and the Infityle, also allows the user to change out their carbon filters and their valve covers. If you find one good velcro mask, you’re prepared for any situation that life may throw at you!

Pros:

  • Adaptive comfort: The velcro strap can rest above or below the ears, depending on your personal comfort and position of your seal.

  • Long-term value: Outside of the maintenance costs of purchasing new disposable filters and valves, this is a one-time investment for a durable product.

  • Easy-on, easy-off: The velcro strap allows for easy wear with limited dexterity and also allows for the mask to be simply pulled down below the chin for eating and drinking.

Cons:

  • Protection: Due to their modular nature, these masks lack the triple+ layer effect of the built-in filter masks.

  • Limited odor blocking: For similar reasons, these masks are not quite as effective at odor blocking without a higher-quality filter.

  • Awkward fit: The velcro strap unfortunately is not very universal-size friendly and may lead to gaps in the seal that can allow particles to enter the mask.

(image courtesy of WoodyKnows)

(image courtesy of WoodyKnows)

Nasal Respirators

In addition to the above essentials for my personal kit, I want to give an honorable mention to another option that I have not personally used but regardless want to highlight as an alternative for those who are mask-averse but still need air quality protection:

Nasal respirators are a discreet, minimal way to mitigate air irritants. Such products include the WoodyKnows. Like the half-face respirators, they employ a carbon filter to reduce exposure to particles and gases. These may be a preferable option for persons who are fiber-sensitive, persons who are sensitive to pressure or humidity as well as persons who are claustrophobic.

Cambridge Mask

Consider this the beefier cousin of the blue box surgical masks. Re-usable respirator masks, such as the Cambridge Mask pictured here, are constructed with layers of microfiber. Cambridge and is a popular respirator-style masks that also have filters of activated carbon built into a center layer. For moderate to severe environments, this is a must-have.

Pros:

  • All fabrics come in creative colors or patterns.

  • Durability: These masks can hold up to long term wear, are hand washable, and may filter particles for several months depending on your environment.

  • Breathability: These masks are often equipped with valves by default to vent CO2 to prevent stuffiness. 

Cons:

  • Comfort: These masks may not sit well with persons who have pressure sensitivities on their ears, noses or cheeks.

  • Sustainability: Masks that have the filters built into them are no longer reusable after the filter is compromised; you’ll have to buy another one. Avoid stocking up too far in advance, as these masks do have shelf expiry dates.

  • Functional ergonomics: These masks require totally removing the mask entirely in order to eat or drink; this is a bummer for folks with limited dexterity.

Vogmask

Full disclosure: I received the masks described in this piece from BuenQamino on behalf of VOGMASK at no charge. VOGMASK requested a mask review that was specific to the product’s specs and intended usages. In no way is my review influenced by a VOGMASK representative, nor am I being additionally financially compensated by VOGMASK.

VOGMASK has provided me with two styles of the single valve VMCV Premier Vogmask ($33 USD each) as well as the dual valve Organic VMC2V ($44 USD). For the purposes of this post, I am trialing the VMCV in Aloha as well as the VMC2V in Aqua.

Having the opportunity to test these VOGs was my first direct experience with a mask produced by this company. On my personal IG, I did a full review of the Cambridge Mask that I modeled in my BQ piece. Since Cambridge and VOG are largely seen as competitor brands in the chronic illness community, I will be sharing my thoughts on the differences between the two brands as well as my unique thoughts on the individual VOGMASKs.

First things first: what does VOG actually protect the wearer from? According to VOG’s FAQ:

VOGMASK is used for protection from airborne particles such as PM 0.3, PM 2.5, PM 10, dust, allergens, post combustion particles, germs, shavings, biologics, odors, scents, mold, mold spores, particles in wildfire smoke, volcanic particulate pollution, and other airborne contaminants. [...]  Highly efficient filtering masks help protect the mask wearer from particles as small as .254 microns. Particulate respirators are designed to protect the wearer of the mask only.  For environments where cross-contamination is a concern, a surgical mask is recommended.

And according to the product page for the VOGMASK VMCV:

Bacterial and Viral filtering >99.9%

VOG actually does protect the wearer from quite a bit, but while VOG attests to protect the wearer from “germs,"  it is not equipped to protect the wearer from viruses or from bacteria, nor will it appropriately bar the wearer from transmitting their own viruses or bacteria to others. The multi-lingual instruction booklet that comes with both styles of the VOG is more upfront about this.

Does not eliminate the risk of illness, diseases, or infection and is intended for general public use.

VOG’s advice to supplement with a surgical mask would be wise for patients who are severely immunocompromised or who are affected by severe lung disorders such as Cystic Fibrosis. This mask is ultimately not designed for the higher standard use of chronic illness patients. (And, in fact, VOG strongly advises patients to consult with a physician first prior to using the product.)

Conversely, Cambridge has submit its product independently to be independently tested, where it was determined to meet the standards of being named a N99 standard product that is cleared to filter over 99% of viruses, bacteria, average particulate filtration down to 0.3 microns and most odors. VOG’s tech specs are more variant in range, however, including to what they have been deemed N99 compliant vs. N95 compliant on. VOG’s compliance credentials are accessible online.

Speaking of odors, the VOG FAQ states this:

VOGMASK is in use in many environments for intercepting odors such as in poor air quality, natural disasters, proximity to chemicals, perfumes, cleansers and other triggering odors, and in beauty CARE (hair, nail, lash, tan) . The middle layers of carbon filter (for odors, VOC's, Ozone) and particle filter help to prevent sensitive lungs from these odors and particles.

However, the instruction booklet states this:

Do not use Vogmask for chemicals, gases, vapors, oil aerosols, oil based particles or extremely high particulate concentrations.

I am fortunate not to be an odor or gas-sensitive person. Unlike when I wear my Cambridge Mask, I can still clearly smell the odors of damp leaves and soil when I am outdoors, and I can smell traces of pungent indoor odors (kitchen smells, cleaning supply smells, perfumes and air fresheners, etc.), and I would not feel comfortable recommending the VOG to a chemically sensitive person.

Ultimately, the user instructions spell it out clearly:

This product does not guarantee protection from illness or any harmful substance.

What this product ultimately does promise in its instruction booklet is to *reduce* exposure. For me, using this product is tolerable in tandem with limited exposure, access to inhalers and antihistamines as well as my regular medication regimen. However, I feel that it is disheartening that users with more extreme sensitivities would only be able to access this plain language information after having purchased the product. The differences in semantics between the FAQ and the packaged instructions are great and potentially misleading.

Regardless, I must confess…. I think these VOGs may be my current favorite filter masks in my personal rotation!

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Prior to this review, I wore each mask for approximately two weeks (alternating between the days) exposing them to differing types of outings and environments for differing lengths of wear. I’ve gotten to know (and love!) these masks very, very well and can definitely identify why I feel these have improved my daily life.

I live in a climate that is both perpetually hot and perpetually humid. Both styles of VOGMASK are designed to be light weight and capable of ventilation to reduce internal moisture. (Note: both styles are equally capable of performing ventilation at approximately the same rate, despite the difference in number of valves.) What this means for me is that these masks are comfortable enough to leave on my face for indoor and outdoor wear and whilst conversing! The internal humidity build-up from speaking is easily mitigated by the exhale vales! I do not have to risk exposing myself to allergens and irritants in order to speak clearly and comfortably to persons in my vicinity, nor do I need to “air out” my face at intervals.

Compared to the Cambridge, which has the texture of a thick flannel, both the microfiber VMCV and organic cotton VMC2V have the same comfort levels as one of my biker bandana style masks!  But between the two, I think my skin prefers the texture of the organic cotton. 

I also appreciate the stylistic simplicity of the VMC2V! (Which at this time comes in only solid colors, including: Aqua, Black, Blue and Tan.) What the organic cotton masks lack in fun pattern options they more than make up for in long-term durability. The base life of a VMC2V is 6 months but may extend out to over a year. This is dependent on average air quality as well as maintenance care (simple hand washing). For the initial $44 investment, this is a spectacular option.

Yet while VOGMASK advertises both the organic cotton mask and the microfiber mask a eco-friendly for their long-term shelf-life and wear-life, the instruction booklet also advises disposal with solid waste and does not suggest that the shells of these masks are partially or wholly recyclable.

The microfiber VMCV has a similar wear-life to the Cambridge Mask: a minimum of 3 months. (I’m unsure what the cause of disparity is between the microfiber’s lifespan and the organic cotton’s!) VOGMASK suggests that, like the VMCV, maintenance and environment could extend this lifespan to over a year. (Cambridge recommends its masks to be disposed after a certain hour range of exposure to different tiers of irritants and pollutants.)

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What the single-valve VMCV lacks in long-term wear, though, it makes up for with over a dozen unique patterns that can be fun or sophisticated, vibrant or muted! In addition to the Aloha, VOGMASK provided me with the Waves, which I am very much looking forward to swap out to in the future. The Cambridge, by comparison, has several patterns themed after different aspects of English culture, which, while charming in their own way, may not be as universally appealing as the VOG.

Between the two, I’ve found myself preferring the VMC2V, and I’ve even found myself preferring the VMC2V for casual wear over my bandana and my velcro strap mask! I’m grateful to have the VOGMASKs be a part of my daily wear and grateful to have had the opportunity to assess their worth and their comparative value to other styles of masks that I have been fortunate to use. Again, I hesitate to recommend these to persons with more extreme sensitivities than myself (especially with regards to viral loads and odors!), but for me, they have become their own integral parts of my personal environmental protection!

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Regardless of what style of respirator or mask you choose, it is imperative to also follow the recommended medical protocol for your condition. Additionally, it is advisable to also use available apps to make educated determinations about your local environment or the air quality of your travel destination. Most native phone weather apps include a pollen tracker, but you may also seek out independent apps that are populated by community aggregators, such as Plume or AirVisual. (I personally compare the read-outs of several apps.)

But however you choose to mitigate your allergic disorder, your immunodeficiency or other health issues that would benefit from the use of a mask: there is a fit that is just right for you.

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Ariel Leigh

Ariel is a life-long subscriber to chronic illness who has given up trying to find the ‘unsubscribe’ button. He lives with his partner and animals on a modest homestead in the southeast United States. Apart from being a permanent patient, Ariel is a death positive advocate and frequent blogger on his instagram and his wordpress blog.

IG: https://www.instagram.com/carpe_that__diem/

Wordpress: https://caarpethatdiem.wordpress.com