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Coronavirus: 10 reusable face masks tested for safety and comfort

The writer puts some reusable masks through a series of homemade tests, to see how they fare for safety and comfort

The Straits Times correspondent John Lui turns scientist (of sorts) to test 10 reusable face masks, putting them through a series of homemade tests to see how they fare for safety and comfort.

We are all mask experts now. It has been five months since masks became mandatory for everyone when they are outdoors and by now, our drawers are probably stuffed with masks tried once then tossed away.

While many are happy with disposable surgical masks, others might prefer a cheap washable and reusable one, for a number of reasons - they are kinder to the environment, more comfortable to wear and come in a variety of colours and designs.

Three months ago, The Sunday Times put fabric masks from five local brands to the test.

This time, I am testing free masks given out in distribution exercises and also the kind you might find sold everywhere for under $10.

The only exception: A 3M one, which cost $14.50 each from Lazada, which I bought because it was a reputable brand.

In a new report published by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, based in the United States, it is said that cloth masks are useful in controlling the spread of infection. "In community settings, cloth masks may be used to prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected persons, and the public should be educated about their correct use," it said.

As my test showed, price does not translate into comfort.

Unless indicated, all masks were bought via Lazada.

A caveat: While every attempt was made to be fair and stringent, the tests are homemade and by no means meet industry standards nor can they be considered scientific. The goal was to cover brands and types that do not usually get the attention of standards bodies.


The masks tested


The masks tested. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

  1. 3M Nexcare 8550: $14.50 
  2. Ice Silk Mask: $5 for three, or about $1.60 each
  3. Protech Reusable Antibacterial Face Mask for Adults: $9
  4. Uniqlo Airism Face Mask: $14.90 for three or $4.95 each
  5. Det30 reusable mask given free by Temasek Foundation
  6. Sports gaiter or bandana from HDB market stall: $5
  7. Acmetop stretchable fabric or "Pitta" mask: $7 for 12 or 58 cents each
  8. Mask issued free to Singaporeans earlier this year
  9. No-brand mask from HDB market stall: $3
  10. No-brand mask with valve from HDB market stall: $5

Aim of the tests

The purpose of a mask, at least the ones used by the public, not the ones used in hospitals, is to catch particles emitted by the wearer’s nose and mouth. “I wear a mask to protect you, you wear one to protect me,” as the saying goes.


The tests

1. THE AIR PASS-THROUGH TEST


ST PHOTOS: 
ARIFFIN JAMAR

This measures how easy it is to breathe through the mask. The usual method is the candle blow-out test.

I simulated this by using an air compressor, set to expel air from its nozzle at roughly the same speed as someone trying to put out a candle. Unobstructed, the nozzle's jet extinguishes a tealight at a distance of 50cm.

 
 
 

As expected, the results show that the thicker the mask, the better it is at blocking the air stream.

The 3M mask (1) is overengineered as an item for daily use.

The Uniqlo Airism mask (4) is popular, with the medium size sold out everywhere (a large was tested), but like the 3M mask, it is too much mask for the purpose.

Likewise, the thick and duvet-like Protech mask (3) is overkill.

These three products block air movement so much that when worn, the breath tends to leak from the sides - defeating the purpose of a mask - or, more annoyingly, upwards, so spectacles fog.

The bandana (6), made of a single layer of fabric, was the most breathable, but the reason for that - its porousness - makes it a poor particle barrier and the Ministry of Health has recommended against its use.

Worst air movement (least breathable):

  1. 3M mask (1)
  2. Protech mask (3)
  3. No-brand mask with valve (10)
  4. Uniqlo Airism mask (4)

Best air movement (most breathable):

  1. Bandana (6)
  2. Det30 mask (5)
  3. Issued mask (8)

2. WATER ABSORBENCY TEST


ST PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR

When the layer closest to the skin is able to wick moisture, the mask feels comfortable. This is important especially for the thicker masks, which trap more heat and water vapour.

The test was carried out using a liquid dropper - a glass tube with a rubber bulb.

As expected, because they were made of cotton or soft fabric, all masks in the sample were found to be absorbent, except for two disposable surgical masks which I tested as a control group. Both had inner layers that allow for water to bead and roll off, showing they were not absorbent.

3. THE LIQUID LEAK TEST


ST PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR


ST PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR

With a water mister, a hand-pumped bottle that ejects a fixed amount of liquid as a fine mist, I simulated wet droplets ejected from a user's nose and mouth to see which masks stopped liquid oozing past the mask's outer surface.

The mask with the valve (10) is hopeless because the "valve" is just a hole the size of a 20-cent coin. Water gushed through it.

The bandana (6), which is one layer of polyester-blend fabric, as well as two other masks - the Ice Silk Mask (2) and Acmetop "Pitta" mask (7) - allowed water to pass all the way through, forming beads on the outer surface.

Leakiest masks:

  1. Bandana (6)
  2. No-brand mask with valve (10)
  3. Ice Silk Mask (2)
  4. Acmetop "Pitta" mask (7)

Conclusion

Soft masks like the Uniqlo Airism (4) feel like a cloud on the face, but its layers make breathing difficult.

Thin, stylish coverings like the Ice Silk Mask (2) and Acmetop “Pitta” mask (7) are poor liquid barriers.

A pricey 3M mask (1) might give buyers peace of mind, but if a mask is a hot blanket, you will leave it in a drawer and pick up another one.

The best compromise between protection and comfort are the free masks (5, 8).

But they do not look as good as the others and the early model does not have a nose bridge wire that stops glasses from fogging.

For that, you can turn to the next best choice in the test, the no-brand $3 cloth mask (9). It comes with the bendy wire and in a variety of designs. Cheaper is better – for breathable masks at least.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2020, with the headline '10 reusable masks tested '. Subscribe