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How to choose a disposable face mask, according to experts

Certain ones can help keep you protected better than others.
Vivian Le / TODAY

While we grew accustomed to masking during the pandemic, and it's still common practice for some, now many people find themselves searching for a mask for an entirely different reason: To protect against poor air quality.

However, when it comes to protection, not all masks are created equal. So, we combed the current guidance and asked the experts what qualities you should look for when shopping for safe disposable options.

How to choose a disposable face mask for wildfire smoke

Inhaling smoke particles may lead to a range of symptoms, from mild irritation in healthy individuals to more serious symptoms, particularly for those who have preexisting lung diseases or post-COVID respiratory problems, reported.

To help keep yourself safe, experts say that the most important thing to do is stay indoors whenever possible. But if you do have to venture outside, a mask can help keep you protected when the air quality is poor. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, dust masks, like the kind that you'd find at a hardware store generally will not keep you adequately protected.

"Medical grade masks are best, such as N95s, KN95 or surgical masks," Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, previously told You want to ensure that the mask is worn correctly, covering the mouth and nose and fitting snugly on your face.

Below, we're highlighting some models that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and meet the minimum level of filtration necessary, according to the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC). Or, in the case of KN95 masks, which are regulated by China and do not have approval from NIOSH, have been tested by an ISO/IEC 17025-accredited test laboratory, per our experts.

N95s and KN95 masks

3M 3-Pack Aura Particulate Respirator 9205+

3M says that its N95 mask is designed to fit a range of face shapes and sizes. It's designed to have soft inner materials that feel comfortable on the skin and adjustable nose clip to create a more secure seal.

AccuMed BNX N95 Mask

According to the brand, this mask is designed to filter 95% of non-oil-based particles 0.3microns or larger. It features headband straps and is foldable for easy transport.

Demetech NIOSH N95 Respirator Face Mask

According to the brand, these face masks are made with five levels of protection to help filter airborne particles. The masks come in packs of 20 and feature attached headbands to secure it to your face.

How to choose a disposable face mask for COVID

"You should use a quality-made three-ply surgical mask made from melt-blown fabric and validated to have higher filtration — not all surgical masks are equal," Ranu Dhillon, an epidemic response specialist at Harvard Medical School, tells Shop TODAY.

"Surgical masks made out of melt-blown fabric do provide filtration of the air passing through the mask on par with or close to N95s," Dhillon explains. "The limitation of these masks is that they don’t fit tightly around the mouth and nose and thereby allow potentially infectious particles to float around the edges."

Waleed Javaid, MD, director of Infection Prevention and Control for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, and professor of Infectious Disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Shop TODAY that surgical masks are fine to wear in certain situations.

“If you’re not in any high-risk situations, you should wear a mask that you can wear for an extended period of time," Javaid says. “I’m not wearing KN95s or N95s all the time, I’m wearing it when I’m in crowded conditions, when I’m caring for patients, we have to wear an N95 mask, but otherwise you should be fine.”

There are other factors that are just as important as filtration, though, including the fit of the mask on your face. "The mask should be well-fitting, covering the nose, mouth and chin, and it should be breathable," Javaid says, "It should have a nose wire."

Another factor that can be helpful when choosing a disposable mask is determining whether it conforms to ASTM standards, Javaid says.

ASTM levels, created by ASTM International, an organization that defines and sets standards for goods used by working people, can be found on select kinds of disposable masks. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ASTM International tests masks and rates them based on levels of fluid resistance, bacterial filtration efficiency, sub-micron particulate filtration, breathing resistance and flammability.

An ASTM level 3 is the highest, identifying greater than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency, sub-micron particulate filtration and is ideal in situations "in which there is a high risk of fluid exposure," according to ASTM International. An ASTM level 1 is ideal in situations with "low risk of fluid exposure." A level 1 has greater than 95% bacterial filtration efficiency and sub-micron particulate filtration.

How long can I wear a disposable mask?

If you are using a disposable mask sporadically, you might be able to wear it on multiple occasions before it is time to swap it for a new one.

"If you’re exercising in it or if you’re wearing it throughout the day, I think at the end of the day, it's time to get rid of the mask," Richard Martinello, MD, associate professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases) and of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, tells Shop TODAY. "But if somebody works in a private office or if they’re a student and they’re in their room on Zoom with no mask on all day and they only wear a mask periodically, that mask may actually remain reasonable for them to wear for a longer period of time."

However, if you frequently are feeling moisture on the inside of the mask or if you sneeze while wearing it, replacing it with a new disposable mask is best practice, Martinello advises.

What is the difference between disposable and medical masks?

Paying attention to the labeling of the masks you are looking to purchase is key in figuring out how exactly the mask is intended to be used.

"You can imagine a Venn diagram where we have 'face coverings' which is just a broad term — you know, from bandanas to surgical masks and respirators," Martinello says. "And then 'medical masks' are just masks that are developed for use in the health care setting and 'surgical masks' are a subset of that and are really characterized by their fluid resistance properties."

Below, we rounded up disposable mask options. Although we haven't had the chance to try all of them, each of the masks included meets the criteria described by the experts above, such as multiple layers and an adjustable fit.

Disposable face masks

Evolvetogether Disposable Face Masks

This celeb-loved brand makes disposable face masks in a variety of colors and designs. Each 3-ply Evolvetogether mask (matte black versions are 4-ply) features three layers of filtration and offers a bacteria filtration efficiency (BFE) that is greater than 98% and a particle filtration efficiency greater than 95%, according to the brand. They are also available in kid sizes.

Modenna Disposable Face Mask Black (Pack of 50)

These bestselling sleek black masks feature three layers as well as an adjustable nose wire. The brand describes the material as having a melt-blown polypropylene filtration layer, which makes it resilient and easy to wear.

Pri-Med ASTM Level 3 Disposable Mask

This box of 50 masks from Pri-Med contains 50 ASTM Level 3 masks, which all feature double-reinforced, bendable nosepieces. According to the brand, they have a filtration efficiency of 98%.

BYD Care Level 3 Surgical Masks

BYD Care's masks are made from three layers of non-woven material. Each of the five bags in the box contains 10 masks, so there are a total of 50 masks inside. They've been given an ASTM Level 3 rating, which provides the highest level of protection from particulate matter.

Defender Safety ASTM Level 1 Face Masks

These masks from Defender Safety feature three layers: an outer barrier made from polypropylene, a middle barrier layer made from melt-blown polypropylene and an inner barrier layer made of spunbond polypropylene. They are an ASTM Level 1 and have a bacterial filtrations efficiency of 95%, according to the brand.

PlastCare 4-Ply ASTM Level 3 Face Masks

PlastCare's masks contain four layers of fabric and an aluminum nose bridge. They've been tested by Nelson Labs and, according to the brand, are an ASTM Level 3 for more than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency.

Maskc Variety Disposable Face Masks

Maskc's masks come in packs of 10 in a resealable bag for easy storage and access. The 3-ply masks feature a moisture-proof inner layer, a melt-blown center and a non-woven exterior layer. They offer a bacterial filtration efficiency greater than 95%, according to the brand, and also have an adjustable nose wire.

Demetech Surgical Mask ASTM Level 3

These masks from Demetech are an ASTM Level 3 and feature three layers, including a filter layer that "provides at least 98% filtration against airborne particles and bacteria," according to the brand. You can purchase a minimum of 50 masks or as many as 25,000 from the brand.