Jun 30, 2023

The 5 Best Reusable Face Masks of 2023

After trying the Enro Curv and Happy Masks Ultra, we’ve concluded that they’re both great masks, but not necessarily worth the extra spend if the Enro Tech or Happy Masks Pro versions are available.

In the face of new COVID-19 variants, frequently changing guidelines, and shifting local transmission and vaccination rates, it may be useful to keep a stash of masks on hand. Fortunately, these days there are many high-quality mask options to choose from, including medical-style N95s and KN95s, which many experts currently recommend as the best protection. But depending on the situation, reusable cloth masks with incorporated filters can block particles nearly as well as medical-grade masks can, as long as they fit securely.

A filter—one that is incorporated or fits in a pocket—helps block tiny particles that one or two layers of cloth alone can't.

A moldable wire helps a mask fit closely, preventing droplets from sneaking in and out along the sides of your nose.

Ear loops you can adjust help a mask fit comfortably and snugly along the sides and bottom of your face.

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 like it isn't even there. Unfortunately, that mask doesn't exist. Shopping for a cloth face mask involves making compromises. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the latest research on cloth face coverings and help you build a collection of masks that suit your various needs. We’ll tell you how to improve the masks you already have by adding a few inexpensive accessories. And we’ll explain how prioritizing fit and comfort can lead to better protection—for others and for yourself.

For each person, a specific mask's effectiveness involves myriad factors (the size of someone's head and facial features, their behaviors, and the environment). For this reason, we couldn't possibly identify the most effective mask for every individual and every situation. So we favored masks that are adjustable in multiple ways and—when worn properly—can filter airborne particles better than other cloth masks, while still being easy enough to breathe through. All of them have incorporated filters or pockets for an additional filter layer and can also be worn over a surgical-type mask. (For more information on N95 and KN95 respirators and surgical masks, see below. We have a guide to N95 and KN95 masks, too.) Although the most protective cloth masks are those that incorporate an effective and efficient filter into their design (like our top picks from Enro and Happy Masks), the best cloth face mask for you is also one you’ll wear and not fuss with, so we’ve provided a range of options to help make that happen. In this guide we recommend a variety of cloth options (with incorporated filters or pockets in which to add one) that balance fit and comfort with filtration efficiency and breathability.

The Enro Tech Mask, available in sizes XXS through XL, has a bendy nose-bridge wire and adjustable ear loops, and it should fit most faces well. In lab tests, this mask filtered 99% of 0.5-micron particles.

Our panel testers liked wearing the lightweight, filter-incorporated Enro Tech Mask (formerly called the Enro Face Mask) more than any other model (as did our junior panelists, who tested pint-size versions for our guide to cloth face masks for kids). You can choose from six sizes and further adjust the fit with this mask's pliable nose-bridge wire and smartly designed, adjustable ear loops. And, according to filtration efficiency and breathability testing we commissioned, the Enro Tech Mask sample we sent filtered about 99% of 0.5-micron particles (with a good seal)—more than any of our other cloth mask picks filtered. It's also more breathable than the other masks we recommend. The Enro Curv Mask tents higher off the face, but we’ve found that the less-expensive Tech suits our testers fine.


This mask tents up over the nose and mouth more than any other mask we tested. So it's more comfortable and breathable than if it sat flatter on the face. In lab tests, it filtered out around 94% of 0.5-micron particles. The drawback: It's hand-wash-only.

Long a recommendation in our guide to the best face masks for kids, the Happy Masks Pro is now also an adult pick. A recent design update extended its vertical length, so it's better at staying put on adult chins. We love how it combines high filtration efficiency (filtering out around 94% of 0.5-micron particles) with plenty of room to breathe, thanks to what the makers call a "parrot beak"–shaped silhouette. You must hand-wash and air-dry it, though. The company also sells the more-structured Happy Masks Ultra, which is machine-washable on a gentle cycle, but still requires air-drying.

This stylish mask has good clearance off the nose and mouth and—thanks to a sewn-in filter—decent filtration efficiency. You can choose between adjustable headbands and ear loops, both of which provide a good fit.

Proper Cloth has upgraded its The Everyday Mask filter. The company's third-party lab results claim at least 95 percent filtration efficiency for particles as small as 0.1 microns, but we haven't lab-tested the newest version of this mask ourselves.

The updated version of Proper Cloth's The Everyday Mask has enhanced pleating, to further lift the fabric off your face. It also has a sewn-in filter layer, which performed fairly well in lab tests we commissioned for filtration efficiency and breathability (filtering 75% of 0.5-micron particles). It's the dressiest-looking of our filter-incorporated picks. However, the material feels thicker and less breathable than that of the filter-incorporated Enro and Happy Masks Pro.

The Enro Tech Mask, available in sizes XXS through XL, has a bendy nose-bridge wire and adjustable ear loops, and it should fit most faces well. In lab tests, this mask filtered 99% of 0.5-micron particles.

This mask tents up over the nose and mouth more than any other mask we tested. So it's more comfortable and breathable than if it sat flatter on the face. In lab tests, it filtered out around 94% of 0.5-micron particles. The drawback: It's hand-wash-only.

This stylish mask has good clearance off the nose and mouth and—thanks to a sewn-in filter—decent filtration efficiency. You can choose between adjustable headbands and ear loops, both of which provide a good fit.

I started researching masks in spring 2020, when people were still wearing bandanas and wiping down groceries. Motivated by self-interest (I wanted to protect myself and my family) and a journalistic mindset (thanks to more than a decade's worth of health reporting, a biology degree, and, frankly, common sense), I suspected, despite vague expert guidance at the time, that some masks really are better than others. And so I took a multidisciplinary approach. Since 2020, I’ve consulted more than two-dozen authorities—from fashion designers and textile experts to aerosol scientists and infectious-disease specialists—with the aim of zeroing in on the small but crucial design details that have an outsize impact on how a mask fits, feels, and protects. Later in the pandemic, as we learned more about how the virus is transmitted, Wirecutter commissioned independent tests at Colorado State University's Center for Energy Development and Health. That's where John Volckens, professor of mechanical engineering, and Christian L’Orange, assistant research professor, assessed the filtration efficiency and breathability of a variety of cloth masks and filters, including for our picks.

By acting as physical barriers, cloth face coverings can help prevent wearers from transmitting respiratory droplets to the people around them. That goes for everyone—not just people who know or suspect they’re sick—because, as a December 2021 study indicates, as many as 40% of people infected with the coronavirus might not show any symptoms.

Masks can also help filter incoming particles—including small ones, called aerosols—from other people, thereby protecting the wearer, too. As a CDC scientific brief points out, when everyone wears masks, infection rates decrease significantly. But even if you’re the only one wearing a mask, evidence suggests there is still a benefit. For an up-close view of how cloth-mask fibers catch particles of various sizes, check out this New York Times rendering.

We’ve evaluated a variety of non-medical N95 respirators and surgical-style masks, and we have some recommendations that are NIOSH-approved or FDA-authorized.

Unless a cloth face mask has a highly protective filter sewn into its layers (as our top picks, the Enro Tech Mask and Happy Masks Pro, do), it's nowhere near as protective against virus-laden aerosols as properly fitted N95 respirators are. Front-line health-care workers rely on N95s to safely care for their patients. N95 respirators are specifically constructed to block the inhalation of particles, including aerosols. They’re meant to fit the curves of your face without gaping, and they’re fabricated from special material that filters out at least 95% of 0.3-micron airborne matter. An N95 respirator mask's fibers are electrostatic and non-woven (haphazardly arranged), making it harder for particles to penetrate. 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, when the focus is preventing the spread of the coronavirus, such valves are problematic because by design they can let unfiltered air escape. Legitimate N95 masks are approved by the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health; there are unique identifying numbers stamped on them that can be confirmed on the agency's website. NIOSH also provides tips on how to spot counterfeits.

KN95 masks (which the US Food and Drug Administration refers to as "filtering facepiece respirators") are manufactured in China according to Chinese standards, which vary slightly from US standards (most KN95 masks have ear loops instead of headbands, for instance). Like N95 masks, KN95 masks are required to filter out at least 95% of 0.3-micron airborne droplets. Last year, in the wake of N95 shortages, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for medical use of KN95 masks, with documents proving that these masks met the required performance standards stated in the EUA's eligibility criteria, FDA press officer Shirley Simson said. Authorized KN95 models and their manufacturers were listed under the relevant Appendix A, found on the agency's Personal Protective Equipment EUAs page. That EUA has since been revoked for health-care professionals, thanks to a replenished supply of N95 respirators. But for the rest of us, KN95s are still a valid tool for protection in everyday situations.

Still, fraud is so pervasive that NIOSH has published a list of strategies to help buyers spot fakes. As The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2020 (subscription required), some illegitimate KN95 masks shed fibers that irritate the skin; others fall woefully short of the 95% filtration efficiency promised. In research discussed in a July 2020 preprint, members of the Greater Boston Pandemic Fabrication Team (including a researcher who’d consulted for a company that imported personal protective equipment) found over 100 different filtering facepiece respirator models in local hospitals. Of those they considered, including KN95 masks, many were of unknown origins and "did not perform to accepted standards and are likely to be counterfeit."

Unlike respirators, surgical masks are not meant to create an airtight fit, so droplets can sneak through gaps around the cheeks. But the material itself (consisting of non-woven layers) typically filters more and smaller particles than most cloth masks, and could potentially be more protective—if only the mask could be worn snug to the face. As a September 2020 paper from researchers at Northeastern University (PDF) illustrates, a surgical mask sealed to the wearer, with a band cut from a pair of nylon stockings, went from blocking 50% to 75% of small (less than 0.3-micron) particles to blocking 86% to 90%. But people rarely, if ever, wear surgical masks so tightly to their faces. In 2021, the CDC announced research findings supporting strategies that are possibly even more effective, and certainly more practical, than wearing a stocking over a surgical mask: If two people were to each secure the fit of their surgical mask—either by knotting its ear loops and tucking in its sides, as shown in this video, or by wearing a well-fitting cloth face mask over it—their exposure to potentially infectious aerosols would decline by around 95%.

True surgical masks are considered medical devices and are regulated by the FDA (not NIOSH). They’re usually tested mainly for issues like fluid resistance (to keep a hospital worker safe from splatter unleashed during a medical procedure, for instance). However, those cleared through 510(k) and authorized for emergency use typically undergo special filtration testing to support claims. Those are listed in Appendix A: Authorized Surgical Masks, and information about their appropriate use is available in the FDA's Fact Sheet for Healthcare Personnel (PDF).

Because of the pandemic, though, the current FDA policy allows surgical masks to be marketed without FDA review, if they follow FDA recommendations as stated in this enforcement policy paper (PDF). Simson recommends using them only in situations where surgical masks with 510(k) clearance or emergency use authorizations are not available. "Sellers of these devices should meet the criteria described in the guidance, including all appropriate labeling to help inform consumers," Simson wrote.

To add to the confusion, the "surgical-style" masks you see online and in many stores are probably not professional-grade surgical masks. They’re just pleated face masks made from layers of various non-woven materials. That's not to say surgical-style face masks can't be helpful, but exactly how protective they are remains unclear, absent any regulation. As we’ll explain in more detail below, an extra layer can't hurt (unless the layer makes it so hard to breathe that either the air is forced to go around the mask or you take off the mask). And non-woven materials, such as the polypropylene layers in surgical and (presumably) surgical-style masks, can bolster protection against outgoing and incoming particles. So instead of using a filter in your well-fitting cloth face mask, wearing a surgical-style mask underneath it is another way to layer up. The two work in tandem: A well-fitting cloth face mask can enhance a surgical-style face mask's seal, and a surgical-style face mask can bolster the cloth face mask's protection factor.

The basic rules of using 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’re in a situation where you want to maximize the potential protection for others and for yourself, you might as well choose something more substantial (such as N95 and KN95 respirators). 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. What's more, as we now know, the addition of a non-woven layer enhances that protection even further. You can achieve this by using a mask with a filter incorporated into the design, inserting a filter into the pocket of a mask, or wearing a pleated surgical mask under the cloth one.

Although it's true that some masks filter much better than others, a mask won't help if it is constantly slipping down your nose, has large gaps around it, or feels so suffocating that you’re forced to take it off. The masks we link to in this guide have the design details that experts told us they look for when shopping for themselves, and that we found greatly impact fit and comfort. These features include moldable nose-bridge wires, filter pockets or an incorporated filter, and cord stoppers, adjustable headbands, or ties.

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 the 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 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 height of the Rendall Co. Sentry mask we like is 3 inches pleated and 6½ 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, Jun said. Masks that are too wide can affect how the elastic fasteners fit around your ears or head. If your measurements fall between designated sizes, size up, and adjust the fasteners as needed. Or, better yet, look for another mask.

Don't fall for "one size fits all." That one size might not fit you. And among masks that come in multiple size options, not all size designations are created equal. "Even a quarter-inch can make a difference," Jun said, especially if you have a wider or thinner face, a longer chin, or a higher nose bridge.

A properly fitting mask extends vertically from the bridge of the nose (just below the eye line) to about an inch under the chin. And it stretches horizontally from cheek to cheek or, even better, as close to the ears as comfortable.

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.

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. 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 by individual; 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.

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-suggested 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. (Read further for tips on improving the seal.)

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 the band 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 allow for a customizable fit. If you consistently find headband and ear-loop fasteners to be too tight, or if they get in the way of hearing aids or glasses, consider ties (as on the Rendall Co. mask we like); the drawback is that ties tend to loosen more easily over the course of a day.

Examine the fastener texture. Headbands with ridges can grip hair better without sliding, especially if your hair is straight, Kaye said. 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.

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 your goal is to protect yourself as well as others, a well-fitting mask that balances breathability with filtration efficiency (the percentage of particles that a mask can block) works best, assuming you keep it on.

"You need to balance comfort and risk." —Linsey Marr, Virginia Tech

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

In fall 2020, the CDC stated 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. The agency noted that timing matters too: You’re more vulnerable to infection the longer you share air space with an infected person. Specifically, spending more than a cumulative 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours with an infected person constitutes "close contact." (Independent experts have disputed the rationale behind both the 6-feet-of-distance and 15-cumulative-minutes-of-exposure guidelines, stating that even though the new guidelines are an improvement, droplets can infect others well over 6 feet away, depending on the ventilation, and this can happen in fewer than 15 total minutes.)

In February 2021, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) approved a new standard for barrier face coverings in terms of filtration and breathability, as well as fit. The 16-page set of guidelines (you can access the new standard, known as designation F3502, with free registration) details the necessary design and testing considerations required, much of which we discuss in this guide. However, because ASTM International doesn't certify or validate a product as meeting these criteria—it simply created them—it's up to manufacturers to follow through and government agencies to mandate the standard. Some mask makers may decide to attain these specifications; some may not. Those that do would be able to state clearly on their packaging specific breathability and filtration values that can help shoppers make an informed decision (assuming the labeling is truthful).

No mask is guaranteed to provide complete protection.

As CDC/NIOSH health communication specialist Nura Sadeghpour explained in December 2020, "products that don't meet the standard may still have some utility, but won't be able to claim that they meet the ASTM requirements, which provide a baseline for performance."

In the meantime, many unknowns remain, 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. What's more, no mask is guaranteed to provide complete protection. 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. To that end, consider the features below.

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 University 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 exhibited 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 an incorporated filter or 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). Alternatively, you can wear a mask made with non-woven materials underneath a cloth mask.

Multiple layers: According to a June 2020 meta review, multilayer masks are more protective than single-layer masks, and specifically "12–16-layer cotton masks" are associated with protection. (Insert laugh-cry emoji.) A more realistic goal, experts say, is to aim for a minimum of two layers: a somewhat water-resistant outer layer and a comfortable inner layer. (As noted below, an incorporated high-filtration-efficiency filter is even better or, at the very least, a pocket for adding one yourself in higher-risk situations.) "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.

Filter pocket or incorporated filter: The most potentially protective cloth masks have a high-filtration-efficiency filter incorporated between the inner and outer fabric layers (as you’ll find in our top picks, the Enro Tech Mask and the Happy Masks Pro). But if these masks don't suit you, you might try masks that consist of at least two layers of cloth and a pocket that allows you to bolster their protective capabilities with a filter made from non-woven material. Of course, you can also leave the pocket empty—wearing the mask as is (in low-risk situations) or strapped over a surgical-style mask (in higher-risk ones).

A filter or surgical mask's non-woven 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 (either placed in a pocket or sewn in), the non-woven material complicates the existing maze a virus needs to get through before it can reach your nose and mouth; this creates "a tortuous pathway," said Mark Losego, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech.

View any specific filtration claims with a healthy dose of skepticism—some of the masks we tested in the lab fell shy of their claims. Washing a filter-incorporated mask weakens the filter over time, too, as our experiment with the Enro and Happy Masks Pro proved. If you’re stuffing a mask pocket, try to find a filter that covers the entire expanse of the mask and stays put. Otherwise, you’re not taking advantage of the filter's fullest potential—droplets tend to sneak through portions of a mask with the least resistance.

Slipped in between two or more fabric layers, a non-woven material complicates the existing maze a virus needs to get through before it can reach your nose and mouth.

If your cloth mask fits great but doesn't contain a filter or pocket, that's okay too. You can simply strap it over a high-filtration-efficiency surgical-style mask to boost the filtration.

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 (for 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.

Over the course of researching and reporting this guide, we spoke with many experts who described the face mask marketplace as the "Wild West." Although updated CDC guidelines and the new ASTM International standards have created a clearer picture of what a good non-medical mask should look like, it's hard for shoppers to know whether any one mask will fit on their face, much less provide sufficient filtration.

So we started with the basics: fit and comfort. 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 we would try ourselves. Since people's faces and preferences are different, all the masks we opted to test are highly adjustable—both in terms of having a nose-bridge wire and some way to fine-tune the fasteners. We also looked for those with a filter pocket or a sewn-in filter. We favored machine-washable designs, but we made exceptions if the mask incorporated a high-performance filter.

Seven panelists (four of whom are pictured in this guide) wore and washed the masks as they went about their everyday lives (teaching virtual and in-person classes, riding bikes, shopping for groceries, dropping kids off at school, taking cabs, walking dogs, and so on). They each made notes on the pliability of the nose-bridge wire, the sturdiness and breathability of the cloth, the mask's ability to stay put, the ease of adjustability, and the mask's general comfort level. All of this resulted in a list that we believe includes masks with the most thoughtful and sturdy designs, as well as models that should comfortably fit most faces.

The best mask for kids is the most protective one they’ll keep on. We have six to recommend that are high-performing, breathable, and fit a range of ages.

Next, we commissioned an independent lab at Colorado State University's Center for Energy Development and Health to test how well the masks might filter droplet- and aerosol-size particles.

"Measuring mask filtration provides a measure of best-case mask performance." —Christian L’Orange, Colorado State University

In December 2020, we sent the center's associate director, Christian L’Orange, 25 total cloth face masks and filter inserts, including some sized for children. Because cloth-mask makers recommend washing masks before wearing them for the first time, we ran new mask and filter-insert samples through the laundry and air-dried them. (We left any non-washable inserts as they were.) We then labeled each mask and filter sample with a number and sealed each individually into a plastic bag before shipping. We included any mask-associated filters so that the researchers could test relevant masks with and without those filters in their pockets. We also sent a sample from a pack of rectangular PM2.5 filter inserts we bought online. Because we did not send the masks and filters in their original packaging, most of the branding was obscured. However, to avoid damaging the masks, we did not cut away any integrated labels. (The Herschel mask, for instance, has a prominent label.)

In April 2021, we sent eight additional masks—including six cloth masks, an N95, and a KF94—to Colorado State for testing. In August 2021, we tested a new batch (which included candidates for our guides to disposable masks and kids masks) and a used Enro and Happy Masks Pro (both of which had been worn and washed over the course of about six months).

We’ve been researching medical-style masks and respirators for months. Here's what we’re buying.

Since the start of the pandemic, Colorado State University's John Volckens, Christian L’Orange, and their team have regularly evaluated N95 and surgical masks before health-care workers in the state use them, so the group already had the relevant test protocols in place. The center's experimental setup is meant to assess filtration efficiency alone; in the tests we commissioned, the researchers did not evaluate mask fit. "Measuring mask filtration provides a measure of best-case mask performance," L’Orange said.

Additionally, the experiments use dry particles, which do not act quite the same as liquid aerosols. The experimental setup is like one very long exhale, which does not reflect the dynamics of inhaling, exhaling, talking, coughing, singing, shouting, and so on. So while the results give a sense of performance, they do not recapitulate real-world use.

In the tests, the researchers sealed each mask—or mask with filter, if the company sold one—to a fixture in such a way that particles would flow through only a portion of the mask measuring 89 mm (about 3½inches) in diameter. (The lab's setup is not meant to assess mask fit. Sealing the edges of each sample down is one way to assume a perfect, gap-free fit.) The lab's equipment then drew these particles—ranging in size from close to 0.5 micron (around the smallest size that can carry the coronavirus) to 10 microns (above which nearly all masks are 99% efficient)—through a chamber at a rate of 15 liters per minute (which is similar to the rate at which a person exhales when talking at normal volume). The team then calculated the number of particles entering and exiting the mask material to yield the rate of penetration for a spectrum of particle sizes; they measured breathability by calculating the pressure drop (or flow rate) from one side of the mask to the other (the lower the pressure drop, the higher the breathability). Each mask underwent two runs; our graphs below show the average filtration efficiencies and pressure-drop scores between the two tests.

Because add-in filters rarely cover a mask from edge to edge, we must acknowledge that the real-life filtration efficiencies for many of these masks are lower than the averaged results suggest—even if the masks are worn perfectly. This is because a fraction of inhaled particles will "take the path of least resistance" and reach the nose or mouth through portions of the fabric that the filter doesn't reach, L’Orange said. Nevertheless, "adding a filter isn't going to hurt," he added. "It can only help, unless it makes the mask so uncomfortable that you won't wear it properly." Still, the results offer a quantitative means for comparison, even if we can't take them at face value.

Keep in mind, too, that masks with different filtration efficiencies may not be as far off as they seem. "Given the uncertainties in measurements and fit, there's not a big difference between 80% and 95%," Marr explained.

Finally, it's important to note that even though not all the masks performed well at the smaller particle diameters (aerosol size), all of them did well on the bigger particles (droplet size). The tiniest diameter, at 0.5 micron, is close to the worst-case scenario. In real life, many of the particles you’re likely to encounter will actually be fairly large, L’Orange said: Particles generated from breathing can be as large as 5 microns, and those from talking as large as 10 microns or more. Many of the masks we tested filtered around 50% or more of the larger particles in the lab's tests. "Although the COVID-19 virus is quite small, the virus typically leaves a person's body contained in liquid droplets, which are much, much larger than the virus itself. If we can prevent the spread of the virus-containing droplets, we can go a long way in containing the virus itself," L’Orange explained. What's more, if you’re wearing a two-layer mask, and the person next to you is wearing the same mask, you’re each protected by four layers of filtration.

"A little bit [of protection] from a lot of people can go a long way," said L’Orange.

The trade-off with dense, multi-layered cloth materials is that they tend to be more difficult to breathe through. Fortunately, masks introduced later in the pandemic that incorporate effective polypropylene filters, such as the Enro and Happy Masks Pro, have allowed these non-disposable masks to lighten up quite a bit. In determining our picks, we looked for masks that we thought would fit most people well and offered a good balance between filtration efficiency and breathability (which we evaluated by considering the lab's "pressure drop" score but more so our experience wearing them). All of these factors are equally important. As L’Orange explained: "You have to ask yourself, which mask will you use that will help you be the most compliant? I don't care if a mask is 99% efficient if you’re not wearing it correctly."

These cloth masks have a filter sewn in between the fabric layers. Assuming a good seal, a few—including the Happy Masks Pro and the Enro Tech—protect almost as well as the medical-style masks, while being easier to adjust and arguably more sustainable. And though chances are good that their high filtration efficiency won't last with prolonged, rigorous wash and wear, they’ll still be more protective than all-cloth masks with a similar fit.

The Enro Tech Mask, available in sizes XXS through XL, has a bendy nose-bridge wire and adjustable ear loops, and it should fit most faces well. In lab tests, this mask filtered 99% of 0.5-micron particles.

Construction: three-ply; polyester outer layer, melt-blown polypropylene filter layer, cotton inner layer

Sizes and dimensions (height by width): 5.375 by 7.5 inches (XXS), 5.5 by 8 inches (XS), 5.75 by 8.5 inches (S), 6.125 by 9 inches (M), 6.625 by 9.5 inches (L), 7.5 by 9.5 inches (XL)

Filter: incorporated

Why we like it: The Enro Tech Mask (previously called the Enro Face Mask) is easily our favorite mask to wear, and even our kid testers (who tried the kids and youth sizes for our guide to masks for kids) approved. Compared with our other recommendations, the Enro Tech Mask feels lighter and more breathable. Yet it's the most filtration-efficient cloth mask we’ve tested—blocking out 99% of 0.5-micron particles, according to the lab testing we commissioned. Unlike the filter in older versions, the current mask's filter extends from edge to edge horizontally, a design that experts say offers more consistent protection across the expanse of the mask. You can choose from six sizes and further customize the fit with this mask's pliable nose-bridge wire and adjustable ear loops. (A bead incorporated into the loops ingeniously prevents the cord stoppers from slipping off.)

Flaws but not dealbreakers: Compared with the Happy Masks Pro, the Enro Tech Mask has less clearance over the nose and mouth, which means slightly less circulation of filtered air above the face. The company also offers a slightly more expensive version, called the Enro Curv Mask, which tents higher off the face. But we think the Tech is adequate. If you prefer extra clearance, you may be happier with the Happy Masks Pro, as it offers even more space around the cheeks.

We lab-tested the filtration efficiency of an Enro mask after almost six months of admittedly rough real-life use: worn and machine-washed about 48 times with household laundry on the warm-water setting (so, potentially higher than the 100 degrees Fahrenheit recommended by Enro), and then thrown in a dryer on a 90-minute "timed dry" cycle (probably hotter than the Enro's recommendation to tumble-dry on low). The result: When tested in the lab, the used Enro mask demonstrated about 44% filtration efficiency for 0.5-micron particles, less than half of the value we saw with a brand-new Enro (though still two to almost four times better than a cloth mask worn without a filter). To be fair, our experiment was unscientific, and the company told us that if the mask started to look weathered (which this one did), it was probably time to replace it. Officially, the company states that its mask can be tumble-dried on low 100 times and still retain its filtration efficiency. However, we’ve accidentally dried our masks on high too many times with the rest of our laundry so, from a practical standpoint, we’ve found it easier to let them air dry.

This mask tents up over the nose and mouth more than any other mask we tested. So it's more comfortable and breathable than if it sat flatter on the face. In lab tests, it filtered out around 94% of 0.5-micron particles. The drawback: It's hand-wash-only.

Construction: five-ply; polyester inner and outer layer, nanofiber filter layer, non-woven filter layer

Sizes and dimensions (height by width): 5.3 by 7.9 inches (S), 6.7 by 9.3 inches (M), 6.9 by 9.6 inches (L), 7.3 by 10 inches (XL)

Filter: incorporated

Why we like it: After getting a design update earlier this year (enhancing chin coverage), the Happy Masks Pro—a long-time pick in our guide to the best kids masks—finally offered a secure fit for the adults on our panel. What's more, the mask (which the company calls "parrot beak"–shaped) still tents higher up over the nose and mouth than any other cloth face mask we tried. So it enables more filtered air to circulate over your nose and mouth and feels more comfortable. Our lab test found that it blocks around 94% of 0.5-micron particles, assuming a good seal—which (along with the Enro mask) offers more protection than Proper Cloth's The Everyday Mask and the pocketed cloth masks we tested. Adjustable ear loops and three sizes mean that a good seal is realistically achievable for many face types. The company recently launched an upgraded style called the Ultra, which is said to have a stronger nose-bridge wire. We haven't found the Ultra to be any more comfortable than the Pro, but its structure may help maintain the integrity of the filter.

Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Happy Masks Pro must be hand-washed and air-dried.

According to our lab results, the Enro masks may be a bit more breathable than the Happy Masks Pro, given its pressure drop of 2.2 mmH2O (similar to that of the much-less-filtrating all-cotton Baggu, and less than half that of the Happy Masks Pro's 4.6 mmH2O). The higher the pressure drop, the harder it is to breathe. In reality, though, most adult testers didn't feel much of a difference, while a few of the school-aged panelists for our guide to kids masks did. We haven't tested the Happy Mask Ultra for pressure drop values. The adult panelists who’ve tried the new mask did not feel a marked difference in breathability, but one child panelist did (though it wasn't so bad that she refused to wear it).

We lab-tested a Pro mask washed and worn by a staffer roughly 36 times (sometimes hand-washed and air-dried as directed, but also sometimes inadvertently thrown in the washing machine and dryer). When we tested this mask in the lab, we discovered the filtration efficiency had been reduced to about 30%. Happy Masks's own third-party testing has shown that the Pro retains its high filtration efficiency after 50 washes, though we have not independently confirmed this with our own lab testing.

This stylish mask has good clearance off the nose and mouth and—thanks to a sewn-in filter—decent filtration efficiency. You can choose between adjustable headbands and ear loops, both of which provide a good fit.

Proper Cloth has upgraded its The Everyday Mask filter. The company's third-party lab results claim at least 95 percent filtration efficiency for particles as small as 0.1 microns, but we haven't lab-tested the newest version of this mask ourselves.

Construction: three-ply; various materials depending on color choice, including cotton, linen, and cotton-linen blends for both inner and outer layers

Sizes and dimensions (height by width): 5.8 by 8.2 inches (small), 6.5 by 9.4 inches (large)

Filter: incorporated

Why we like it: Proper Cloth's The Everyday Mask, made by the shirt company of the same name, has a tailored, dressed-up look. It offers moderate protection against the smallest particles we tested, assuming a good seal (about 75% filtration efficiency for 0.5-micron particles). The 2.0 version we tried puffs up above the face more than the other masks we tested (except for the Happy Masks Pro, as well as the Enro Curv). The Proper Cloth mask in Small fit particularly well on panelists who’ve found that most masks they’ve tried have felt too big for them. The company now sells a subtly tweaked design—the 2.1—which slightly reduces the bulk at the outer edge of the mask. It also recently introduced a kids version, called the Everyday Mask 95EC, made from cotton and polyester.

We like that The Everyday Mask comes in an ear-loop version (for take-on-take-off ease), as well as in an ear-friendly headband format (for extended-wear situations). You can also choose from an array of beachy fabrics and colors. When we tested the filtration efficiency of the mask in cotton and in cotton-linen—back before the company introduced the sewn-in filter—we found that the former was slightly more protective than the latter, assuming a perfect seal.

Flaws but not dealbreakers: Lab testing revealed a 75% filtration-efficiency rating for 0.5-micron particles, assuming a tight seal; this isn't as impressive as results for the Enro and Happy Masks Pro, but it's still much more potentially protective than what cloth-only masks provide. The filter doesn't extend to match the outer layer edge to edge; in real-world use that means this mask will probably filter somewhat less well than the lab results suggest. The nose-bridge wire is less sturdy than that of the Graf Lantz mask, so you may be more likely to experience fogging glasses.

Although the incorporated filter is convenient, it does add heft to the mask, making it feel stiffer and heavier than even the filter-incorporated Enro and Happy Masks Pro. The mask does come in lighter fabrics, such as all-linen. But we haven't tested those versions for filtration efficiency and breathability.

A reader complained of mangled elastics, though we haven't experienced that problem yet—to be safe, air-dry your masks instead of machine-drying them. Proper Cloth recommends hand-washing its masks, though it notes that machine-washing them is fine. We like that the filter is machine-washable, too. And, according to our test, the filter still works after one run in the laundry.

Among the first cloth masks to be sold in the pandemic, these masks are typically made with polyester, cotton, linen, nylon, or some other fabric combination. Our recommendations are all designed with a pocket so you can slip in a filter, either included or sold separately. Adding the filter tends to make these masks harder to breathe through. Yet when worn without one, they’re not nearly as good as our filter-incorporated or medical-style mask picks at blocking out small particles. However, they do come in an array of styles and may be a good option in low-risk, short-duration situations.

The easy-to-adjust masks below appeared on our list of favorites before our December 2020 filtration-efficiency and breathability lab tests. We still think they’ll fit most faces well and comfortably. But used as is, they’re not particularly good particle blockers. The first three don't come with filters; the last (Cottonique) includes removable filters but, like the others, had a much lower filtration efficiency value than that of our top picks. In a higher-risk situation, we suggest doubling them up with a surgical-style mask or adding your own filters.

If breathing room is your priority: The Graf Lantz Zenbu Organic Cotton Face Mask tents up over the nose and mouth, more so than most cloth masks. So the fabric doesn't get in the way of breathing or talking. The nose-bridge wire in this mask strikes a nice balance between rigid and pliable, creating a great seal. Used with its filter (sold separately), the Graf Lantz mask provides moderate filtration, assuming a good fit, but feels heavier than our picks from Enro and Happy Masks. We also wish the filter covered the entire mask, to maximize its filtration potential, since experts warned us that air tends to go around a filter if it doesn't span the entire mask.

If you’re looking for bright colors or whimsical designs: The roomy Baggu Fabric Mask (ear loops) covered and sealed comfortably for just about everyone on our panel, and each three-pack comes with an array of fun designs, including daisies and bright color combos. The inner layer is the same fabric as the outer layer, so people who have sensitive skin and are not double masking may prefer the Graf Lantz mask, which has a softer cotton inner layer.

If you want something lightweight: Despite its simple, slim design and relatively low price, Herschel Classic Fitted Face Mask is surprisingly generous in cut, leaving space between the nostrils and cloth. Yet it doesn't easily slip when you talk. The easy-to-access sleeve (on the underside of the inner layer) means adding a filter is easy as well. If your ears get sore, the enclosed plastic fastener, which has hooks at both ends, attaches the two ear loops to each other behind your head to relieve pressure. The prominent Herschel label may be a turnoff for some folks, however, and people with a larger chin, longer face, or higher nose bridge may find that this mask lacks vertical coverage.

If you have a large face or a beard: The Rendall Co. Sentry mask consists of a generous swath of material that tucks well under the chin if you need it to, and a clever drawstring system lets it adjust more easily than most tie-on masks. But the filter-pocket opening is very small (about 3 inches), and slipping in a filter (not included) requires both dexterity and patience. Given that the ties make it easier on the ears, you may just want to double up with a surgical mask if you’re in a situation that requires extra protection. This mask may be too big for small-ish faces, particularly around the chin.

If you have sensitive skin: The cotton-knit Cottonique Elite Plus Hypoallergenic Face Mask, when worn with its removable filter, blocked more small particles than some of the cotton-woven designs we tested. It feels like the thick, soft cotton of a favorite tee, including the adjustable ear straps. Offering ample curve-conforming coverage, the mask comes in a two-pack with 10 filters and two sets of cord stoppers. Some people might find the straps, which you pull through loops and leave hanging by the ears, weird-looking and prone to slipping. But you can always tie them under your chin or behind your head.

If you plan to continue masking, you’ll want to 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, ones that are 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.

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 a tote or your 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," the Kirby Institute's Raina MacIntyre said. "A wet mask becomes an incubator. Take it off immediately without touching the face piece and put on a new one."

Gather a range of materials and mask shapes. 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 for rainy days, with a top layer treated in such a way as to prevent droplets from soaking in. (The Happy Mask Pro and Enro masks have some level of water resistance. None of them are waterproof, so you’ll need to change your mask if it does start pouring.)

Include a mix of fasteners. Ear loops tend to be easy to put on and take off, which is ideal for running 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.

Typically, worn masks are non-refundable and difficult to donate. But, depending on the issue, you might be able to improve matters and keep the problem mask in your rotation. Here's what to do.

If a pleated mask gapes around your cheeks: This problem is common—most people don't have a rectangular face. If the mask's bands don't help seal off the sides, try adding a chain of three rubber bands, as this clever technique demonstrates. This folding trick (video) was devised for disposable surgical-type masks. But it may help with cloth ones too, especially if you stitch the creases in place. The Fix the Mask site offers a downloadable template for making a mask brace out of a rubber sheet, and it also sells pre-made ones (which we haven't yet tested).

If the mask is too big: If a mask's ear loops are thin enough, tie knots near the ends or add an appropriately sized cord-lock toggle. If the fasteners are too thick, secure a small piece of yarn or string as close to the ends of each loop as appropriate. You can also thread a strap of Velcro through the two ear loops so the mask attaches at the back of your head.

If the ear-loop elastics hurt your ears or interfere with hearing aids or headphones: After you’ve worn ear loops for a few hours, that pressure can be painful. You can try "ear savers," but the Velcro trick works for this purpose, too.

If the mask doesn't seal around your nose bridge: You can upgrade wire-free cloth masks by sewing in your own aluminum strips. Supermarket twist ties can work, too, said Juan Hinestroza, an associate professor of fiber science at Cornell University.

A loose-fitting mask can lead to foggy glasses. If you don't want to tape the top of your mask to your face, anti-fog drops might help. (So might soap or spit.)

If the mask fabric gets up in your nose or mouth when you breathe: Mask brackets tent the fabric up over your nose and mouth and maintain the space even as you inhale. Take note, though, that these work only with generously cut masks, which maintain a good seal even as the central portion is propped up. These add-ons are also iffy for sensitive skin types: Made from plastic or silicone, they can cause friction and irritation if they don't fit properly, said Philadelphia dermatologist Carrie Kovarik.

Although there are lots of masks that are highly effective by themselves (especially N95s or KN95s), some people may chose to double mask—that is, wearing a surgical-style mask underneath a cloth face mask. A surgical-style mask (assuming it's legitimate and made of non-woven materials) offers great filtration, while a good cloth face mask can be adjusted to secure a good fit. The two masks work in tandem to maximize both fit and filtration overall. In fact, a CDC study on two dummy heads concluded that when both dummies were double masked with a surgical-style mask and a well-fitting cloth face mask over it, the transmission of potentially infectious aerosols was reduced by around 95%. (The study also found that people can achieve similar effects by wearing just a legitimate surgical mask but knotting its ear loops and tucking in its sides, as shown in this video.) Because double masking can reduce breathability, which may force air around the sides of the mask rather than through it, it isn't a good idea to double up on N95s or KN95s. And because the cloth mask is serving as a fitter, it should be worn over a surgical mask, not under.

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—resulting 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 can be quite protective—especially when worn doubled over (as explained in this non-peer-reviewed preprint PDF) or, even better, with the addition of a paper towel (as described in a non-peer proof-of-concept study). As with regular cloth face masks, the key is to create multiple layers and a good seal.

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 & 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%). 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, shields have some advantages over masks in particular situations, and certainly they provide added benefits when people wear them 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 NIOSH. Face shields may also be useful as extra protection for those who are wearing a cloth mask in other close-range situations.

"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.

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 most effective way to reduce fogging when you’re wearing a mask is to create a better seal between the top of the mask and your skin, leaving less room for air to escape your mask and reach your glasses. So far we’ve tested a handful of anti-fog sprays, gels, and wipes against household surfactants (such as baby shampoo and bar soap), and we’ve found that Ultra Clarity's Defog It drops are the most compatible with different lens types and coatings. However, in our experience, coating our lenses in spit worked just as well to reduce glasses fogging in some cases.

Various respiratory-medicine groups 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 masks) may help with lip reading. With low-risk situations and social distancing, face shields may make communication easier; otherwise, texting can also be helpful.

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 and disposable face masks for kids and toddlers for our recommendations.

Like trusty T-shirts, many cloth masks are machine-washable. But a few, like the Happy Masks Pro, need to be hand-washed.

Always wash a new mask before wearing it for the first time. And always wash your hands after touching a worn mask and before touching anything else.

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.

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 fiber scientist Juan 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."

Predicting the durability of different mask fabrics is "challenging," Hinestroza said. It depends on not only the frequency at which they are worn and washed but also the humidity levels between your nose and mouth and the mask. "I do not have exact data," he said, "but my feeling is that the wearer will be tired of using a particular mask faster than the mask becoming unusable."

Just because a mask isn't one of our picks doesn't mean it's no good. Some masks may work well for your particular facial features, circumstances, and preferences. The only way to know for sure is to try it on.

In early summer 2020, when we started our original draft of this guide, we couldn't recommend the vast majority of masks sold online because they didn't satisfy our basic criteria—at least two layers, a filter pocket, a nose-bridge wire, adjustability around the head or ears, and (unless they have a high-performance filter sewn in) machine-washable. The masks we dismissed outright at the time included models from many popular brands, such as Everlane's 100% Human Face Mask (no filter pocket or nose-bridge wire); the beloved, inexpensive Old Navy pleated masks (no filter pocket or nose-bridge wire); Madewell's 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).

Designed by a company that has long sold disposable medical-style masks for essential workers, the 3M Reusable Daily Face Mask (3-Pack) is a cloth face mask meant for the rest of us. We haven't lab-tested it for filtration, but the two-layer cotton mask is incredibly opaque when held up to the window (suggesting a tight weave) and yet more breathable than most. It's designed with a nose-bridge wire and expansive adjustable ear loops. However, for a few testers, it lacked a tight seal or sat too close to the mouth.

The satiny-surfaced är Face Mask comes with a lightweight removable filter. But we found its construction bafflingly clumsy. The nose-bridge wire and cushion attaches to the disposable filter instead of to the $30 mask itself, rendering the latter pretty useless once you get tired of spending $11 for a new three-pack of filters every few weeks (each filter lasts about 40 hours, or two weeks). We also don't like that this filter is merely Velcroed onto the fabric at three points; it has a tendency to bunch up while also lying directly on the face, picking up sweat and skin oils. Alas, the "self cleaning function" applies not to the filter but to the fabric. Finally, the clunky adjustable buckles and the thick, not very elasticky elastics that form the ear loops make it challenging to form a tight seal.

The cozy BeatBasic mask—an "Amazon's Choice" offering with more than 25,000 reviews last we checked—lacked a filter pocket, and its ear loops failed to offer sufficient elasticity.

We liked the breathability and lightness of the Buff Filter Mask, as well as its easily adjustable headbands (which operate similarly 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 Fahrenheit 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.

The four-ply, filter-incorporated Copper Compression Copper Infused Face Mask, available in a two-pack, blocked 83% of 0.5-micron particles in lab testing. But because of its stiff texture, some testers had difficulty achieving a good seal. Most people are likely to find a lighter, more breathable feel with Enro's mask or Proper Cloth's The Everyday Mask.

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 could fit over an N95 respirator), albeit pleasingly soft, and the ear-loop elastics were relatively thick and difficult to adjust by knotting.

We previously recommended Banana Republic's original Face Mask, which the company sold in an economical three-pack. It fit and filtered better than most masks in its price range, but it is no longer available.

Gap's Adult Contour Mask and the now-discontinued Athleta Made to Move Mask felt nice and came in cute designs. But both were too short, which caused these masks to slip easily down the noses of our testers when they spoke. The nose-bridge wires also didn't mold well. We found similar problems with Banana Republic's newer styles, such as the Banana Republic Face Mask (2-Pack) with headbands and the polyester-spandex Banana Republic Flyweight Face Mask (3-Pack) with ear loops. The same goes for the newer Athleta Women's Activate Face Mask 2-Pack.

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 our testers with narrower faces.

If most masks are too small for you, the nylon-polyester-spandex-knit Honeywell Dual-Layer Face Cover with Replaceable Inserts and nose-bridge wire may work. It comes with two filters; additional packs are sold separately. We didn't evaluate them in the lab, but Honeywell, a longtime maker of legitimate N95 masks and surgical masks, reports that third-party testing has shown 97% filtration efficiency for aerosols as small as 0.1 micron. This mask feels sturdy and sits well above the face, providing generous breathing room. However, the material is somewhat stiff, and the ear loops, while adjustable, are thick. For some people, this mask, at 6.25 inches high and 9.1 inches wide, may be too large.

The filter-incorporated Inex Gear The Better Mask fit our panelists well, and it felt lighter than many other masks we tried, too. But in our lab testing, it filtered only 20% of 0.5-micron particles—about the same as many all-cotton cloth masks we’ve tried without filters.

Many testers loved the filter-incorporated L.L.Bean Non-Medical Mask, which looked and felt like the filter-incorporated Enro Tech Mask. However, one tester found it to be hot and humid after all-day wear. It comes in cute patterns as well as solids. We’ve since lab-tested this mask, only to find it's roughly half as protective as the Enro. We think spending the few extra dollars for the Enro is worth it.

A third cloth layer in the Lo & Sons All Day Comfort Face Mask, which attaches with Velcro, can be added or subtracted as needed. But we found the materials too light for our comfort, given that the mask has no pocket to accommodate a non-woven filter. The neoprene ear loops, though comfortable, were difficult to adjust in our tests. Our fitness writer liked running in this mask, since it had a lanyard for easy put-on-take-off situations.

Panel testers who wore the Outdoor Research Adrenaline Sports Face Mask Kit while working out all had high praise for this almost-airy, adjustable mask. Its dome-like silhouette offers more clearance than most masks we’ve tried, so you don't get the filter or fabric up your nose or mouth, even when you’re breathing hard. (However, if you’re using workout equipment close to your face, the elevated "beak" may feel awkward at first.) And despite coming in only one size, this mask offers a sturdy nose-bridge wire and highly adjustable ear loops that enhance the seal on a wide variety of face sizes and shapes. The 100% polyester see-through mask acts merely as a holder; it's the included, detachable filter that does the hard work. According to our lab testing with Colorado State, it scored about 85% in filtration efficiency with 0.5-micron particles. Our sole gripe is that only three filters come in a pack, and they can get a bit "wilted" after a week or so, depending on how often and how hard you work out. At $20 for a pack of 25, the filter-layer refills are more expensive than if you were to simply double mask, though the breathability factor may be well worth the investment for some people.

It took several washes for the synthetic smell of the Outdoor Research Face Cover Kit to dissipate, and the removable filter (three included) sits in direct contact with the face. We strongly prefer the Adrenaline Sports Face Mask Kit, which panelists who worked out while wearing masks enjoyed using.

The dapper Royal Jelly Harlem Adult Mask, which we ordered in a sturdy pink seersucker, had a height issue; also, its third "filter" layer is non-removable, and the mask doesn't have a nose-bridge wire.

The Scout Face Mask is made of soft, pre-washed cotton and is 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.

Despite its self-described "nanotech fabrication" and "ultra-breathable" feel, the Space Mask was stifling for many panelists. Our lab testing showed 40% filtration efficiency for 0.5-micron particles—it performed only slightly better than the Banana Republic Face Mask (no longer available), which cost around a third as much.

The Stark's Face Covering incorporates a sewn-in filter that claims to block particles as small as 0.3 micron. We chose not to test it in the lab because its problematic fit—no nose-bridge wire, little clearance around the mouth—prevents us from recommending this mask anyway.

We wanted to like the Tom Bihn V6, a handsome mask with built-in filters that cost less than most others of similar build quality at the time of our tests. With cotton-broadcloth inner and outer layers and four layers of polypropylene sewn in between, instead of a pocket, it feels substantial, fosters good airflow, and tents off the face well. A few of our testers, however, had a hard time getting a good seal along the jawline. A bit of playing around with knots and ponytails can help secure it, but that may also pull the fabric too close to the mouth. If it happens to fit you, though, this mask is a good value.

The relatively expensive polyester-polyurethane Under Armour Sportsmask is well constructed and available in five sizes. But if you over- or underestimate your size at the time of ordering, as some of our panelists did, it's difficult to adjust. Our staff writer for fitness, who took the mask on runs, appreciated the way it tented up over the nose. But she didn't find it particularly moisture-wicking (in fact, the mask felt clammy at times). She also found the ear loops a bit "flimsy" and actually preferred running in the Herschel mask we recommend.

After hearing raves about the Vistaprint RFS Mask, we gave that model a try, too, but we found its chin coverage quite narrow, with a tendency to ride up.

Christina Szalinksi contributed reporting.

This article was edited by Tracy Vence and Kalee Thompson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian L’Orange, PhD, associate director of the Center for Energy Development and Health, Colorado State University, and assistant professor of research, mechanical engineering, phone interview, January 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nura Sadeghpour, health communications specialist, CDC/NIOSH, email interview, December 23, 2020

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

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

Shirley Simson, press officer, FDA, email interview, January 15, 2021

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

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

Joanne Chen

Joanne Chen is a former senior staff writer reporting on sleep and 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.

by Joanne Chen

We’ve been researching medical-style masks and respirators for months. Here's what we’re buying.

by Tim Heffernan

These masks work to block particulate inhalation in conditions ranging from wildfire smoke to dusty home projects.

by Christina Szalinski

The best mask for kids is the most protective one they’ll keep on. We have six to recommend that are high-performing, breathable, and fit a range of ages.

by Signe Brewster

As a last-resort measure, some hospitals would consider using homemade masks for patients who don't have COVID-19.

Study the sizing chart. Don't fall for "one size fits all." Look for a nose-bridge wire. Consider the mask's shape. Check for adjustable fasteners. Examine the fastener texture. Tight weaves: Multiple layers: Filter pocket or incorporated filter: Generous cut: Construction: Sizes and dimensions (height by width): Filter: Why we like it: Flaws but not dealbreakers: Construction: Sizes and dimensions (height by width): Filter: Why we like it: Flaws but not dealbreakers: Construction: Sizes and dimensions (height by width): Filter: Why we like it: Flaws but not dealbreakers: If breathing room is your priority: If you’re looking for bright colors or whimsical designs: If you want something lightweight: If you have a large face or a beard: If you have sensitive skin: Keep your masks accessible. Stash a spare or two in a tote or your car. Gather a range of materials and mask shapes. Include a mix of fasteners. If a pleated mask gapes around your cheeks: If the mask is too big: If the ear-loop elastics hurt your ears or interfere with hearing aids or headphones: If the mask doesn't seal around your nose bridge: If the mask fabric gets up in your nose or mouth when you breathe: Neck gaiters face shield