How to choose a face mask that protects and has style

mona lisa wearing face mask
Image by Sumanley xulx from Pixabay

When it comes to preventing the spread of the coronavirus nothing works better than 1) staying at home, 2) social distancing, and 3) cleaning your hands. As society begins to open up—or even when we make a quick trip to the store in hopes of finding toilet paper—we will need to mingle with our fellow humans/germ transmitters.

We may be in this for a while, which means face masks are a necessary evil.

The CDC recommends that everyone wear cloth face coverings when leaving their homes, regardless of whether they have fever or symptoms of COVID-19. There is evidence that people with COVID-19 can spread the disease, even when they don’t have any symptoms. In fact, the CDC recently estimated that 35 percent of individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 may be asymptomatic and still infectious.

That doesn’t mean we must walk around in anonymous blue surgical masks, which are better left for the first responders anyway. Masks—like other utilitarian accessories such as shoes and hats—can have style as well as function.

Selecting a mask: safety comes first

A pretty or striking design is one thing. But the mask must do its first job: stop respiratory droplets from getting in (from an infected person) or out (so you don’t infect someone else). Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly through respiratory and mouth droplets produced by sneezing and coughing of the infected person.

These droplets can be of various sizes and are commonly classified as aerosols (made of droplets that are smaller than 5 microns and droplets that are greater than 5 microns. The coronavirus attaches itself to these droplets.

The larger droplets generally settle due to gravity and do not travel more than 3 to 6 feet. Aerosols containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, though, are considered nano-aerosols and can remain suspended in air for around three hours, which is why they are so successful at spreading infection.

Can those droplets go through cloth?

There is limited knowledge available on the performance of various commonly available fabrics used in cloth masks that are for sale or being donated to first responders.

In an article on the American Chemical Society website, “Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks,” researchers examined various cloth materials to assess their effectiveness in filtering aerosol particles similar to coronavirus particulates.

The fabrics had various mechanisms of particle capture and retention and ability to filter particles of various sizes—from aerosol to droplet.

Some fabrics offer a mechanical barrier. Woven textiles like cotton and linen offer a physical barrier to droplets and, to a varying degree, aerosols. Factors that make them more or less effective include thickness of the fiber and tightness of the weave.

Other materials filter aerosols through electronic attraction. Fabrics like silk and chiffon retain a high static charge so are effective at filtering the negatively charged coronavirus.

Multiple layers enhance protection. Single layers provided some protection, but nanometer-sized particles can easily slip between the openings in the network of filter fibers.  When multiple layers were used, that protection was enhanced.

Combining mechanical and electrostatic fabrics even better. Hybrids using a specific combination of different fabrics, e.g., cotton-chiffon, cotton-flannel, approached a filtration level comparable to a N95 respirator and surgical masks.

Gaps (caused by a mask that doesn’t fit properly) can result in over a 60% decrease in the filtration efficiency.

aerosol filtration chart
Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks; ACS Nano 2020, 14, 5, 6339-6347

Some guidance for buying a mask

We can use the observations from the research into cloth mask design to guide our buying decision

  • Fabric with tight weaves, such as those found in 600-thread count (TPI) cotton sheets, provide the best physical barrier of available fabrics. Textiles that are porous should be avoided.
  • Natural silk, a chiffon weave, and flannel can likely provide good electrostatic filtering of particles.
  • Four layers of silk—like a wrapped scarf–provided good protection across a range of particulates.
  • Hybrid combinations–layering mechanical with electrostatic fabrics—are preferred.
  • A quilt consisting of two layers of cotton sandwiching a cotton−polyester batting also worked well.
  • Proper fit is crucial. Gaps (caused by a mask that doesn’t fit properly) can result in an over 60% decrease in the filtration efficiency. Still, you must be able to breathe. Fit is a reason why properly worn N95 masks and masks with elastomeric fittings work so well.
  • You must be able to breathe. There’s no point in bringing on other respiratory ailments by blocking the breathing out of carbon dioxide and intake of oxygen.

If you’re buying a cloth mask, check that it uses designs or sewing instructions from experts like the CDC or your local hospital.

Choose a mask with more than one layer of fabric. Make sure it’s not too hard to breathe through the material.

Look for a mask that fits your face well and is comfortable enough that you’ll be willing to use it. There shouldn’t be any gaps around your nose, mouth, and chin.

Be sure you can take off the mask using only the ties or ear loops. You should be able to wash and dry your mask without damaging it or changing its shape.

Where to find stylish masks online

The “pause” left designers and other creatives with plenty of time on their hands. After sewing masks for first responders, many have branched out to designing masks for the rest of us. Face masks may soon become the next must-have fashion accessory.

Note: These masks are not medical grade and are not meant to substitute for social distancing and hand washing.

face mask with ribbons and bows
Collina Strada face mask with bows.

This fashion mask from Collina Strada caught our eye for its creative interpretation of a utilitarian item. It is made from deadstock materials from the designer’s collections. The mask fastens with bows and has an opening to insert a filter. Made in NYC. For each mask purchased five masks will be donated to healthcare workers in New York City. See website for details.


surgi-hybrid face mask
Hybrid face mask in Gray Modern Camo from Destiny’sLittleMarket on Etsy.

We’re big fans of Etsy, where you can find dozens, if not hundreds, of vendors creating face masks for sale. This hybrid mask from DestinysLittle Market is made with four layers: 100% cotton fabric front and back, and two different Interior fabrics. One is a soft non-woven interfacing and the other is a cotton flannel material. It offers facial width coverage and comfort like a surgical mask (but makes no medical claims), and provides room for easier breathing. There is a strong nose crimp to help decrease fabric gaping.  Multiple patterns available. See website for details.


NOK face mask
Next of Kim Warrior Mask


NOK Warrior Pleated Washable Face Masks are made of cotton in colorful urban patterns and are machine or hand washable. All masks come with an inside pocket in which you can use a filter of your choice. See website for details.


matruska face mask
Cotton masks from LA-based Matruska

Matruska is a female owned and operated boutique in the hip Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Their non-medical grade mask is made from two layers of washable and reusable 100% cotton, the same playful fabric designs Matrushka is known for. Includes an adjustable nose bridge for more accurate fit. See website for details.


Liberty on London cloth face mask Etsy
Face mask made with Libery of London cotton, TheGiftedFlamingo on Etsy

Liberty of London fans can now sport a favorite pattern on their faces. TheGiftedFlamingo makes a washable, reusable face masks with a variety of Liberty cotton prints. Three layers of 100% cotton with filter pocket on reverse. They are designed to fit under the chin, have a nose wire to secure the fit, and sport a pocket on the reverse side for a filter. See website for details.

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