We don’t know what’s going to happen in the world for the rest of 2021 and beyond, but one thing’s for sure – we’ll be wearing face masks for travel for a long while yet!
Thanks to COVID-19, to get on any form of public transport these days, the law in most countries now dictates that you have to wear a face covering, regardless of vaccination status.
Governments across the world have introduced a mask requirement (in some cases, even when outside) and airlines have made masks mandatory for all passengers.
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Read Next: (opens in new tab)
- COVID-19 and Status of Travel in Southeast Asia
- Pandemic Travel Essentials to Keep You Safe
- How to Avoid Getting Sick While Travelling
Which is the best face mask for international travel?
Even as other COVID-19 restrictions ease, mask mandates continue to be as important as they were at the beginning of the pandemic, especially with more contagious variants, such as Delta, being the most common.
If you’re taking a trip in the near future, you may be confused about which type of mask to opt for. Already there are a million different kinds of masks on the market, but some masks seem to be more focused on style rather than safety.
You may be wondering: If I choose a highly protective mask, do I have to compromise on comfort and breathability? And, do some airlines have rules on which type of masks they allow passengers to wear onboard?
In this article, we’ll try to answer all of these questions and advise you on the things you need to think about when choosing a face mask for travel. We’ll also get the lowdown from the South East Asia Backpacker Community about their preferred masks for use on a plane and on the road. Hopefully, then, you can decide which mask is the best for you!
Disclaimer – We have not tested, nor are we qualified to test the protection level and the efficacy of the masks that are discussed in this article. This article has been written using our own research and feedback from the South East Asia Backpacker Community who have been sharing their personal opinions on which masks they prefer to use when they travel. Please do your own research and consult with your airline when it comes to choosing the right mask for your trip.
- Most protective face mask for flying (non-reusable): N95 Respirator
- Best face mask for long-haul flights (non-reusable): KN95 Mask
- Most protective reusable face mask: HaloLife Mask
- Most comfortable reusable face mask: HaloLife Mask
- Best reusable face mask for kids: Happy Mask
- Best face mask for everyday use: 3 Ply Surgical Face Mask
What’s important to look for in a mask for flying?
First things first, check your airline’s guidelines – If you are planning to fly, make sure you read the airlines’ guidelines when it comes to which face-covering they allow on their aeroplanes. For example, Lufthansa recently updated its guidelines to state that only FFP2, FFP3, KN95, N95 or surgical masks would be allowed on their flights.
- Breathable – If you’re going to be passing through airports and getting on long-haul flights, the first thing you need to look for is a mask that is breathable and won’t leave you gasping for air! Many members of our community suggested that travellers take a few different types of masks with them when travelling. For example, some travellers prefer to wear one type of mask when they are on the plane and a different one when they are in the airport itself. This is because some masks offer a great level of protection for the wearer (such as the N95 mask) but are not so comfortable when worn for long periods. Therefore, it is better to limit the amount of time that you are wearing this mask as much as possible.
- Washable and Reusable – Single-use items have long been a drain on the planet’s resources. Since the Coronavirus pandemic started, thousands of disposable masks have been used once and thrown away, so much so that there’s been a surge in ocean pollution. You can’t blame citizens for this (assuming they haven’t dropped the mask in the oceans themselves, in which case, blame away…). Medical authorities recommend that masks such as the KN95 and surgical masks be disposed of after one usage. If you hate the thought of using a disposable mask and adding to the waste problem, you may prefer to invest in a fabric mask (like the ones below) that is washable and reusable.
- Comfortable – If you’re going to be sitting on a long-haul flight for several hours, you will need something that you feel comfortable in. The first thing to consider is getting a mask with adjustable ear loops. Our ears have really taken a beating over the past year and a mask with adjustable ear loops will ensure a snug fit while relieving pressure behind the ears. Some people prefer to opt for a mask where the strap fits around the bottom of their head instead. In addition, some of the fabric masks have foam fitted around the nose piece to prevent air leakage and also to make the mask more comfortable for the wearer.
- Filtration – When it comes to filtration, we are talking about the percentage of aerosol particles that the mask filters out. For example, the safest mask available, the N95 respirator, is named according to the percentage of particles that it filters out, 95-97%. On the other hand, surgical masks and cotton masks offer less protection, but many claim that they are easier to breathe in.
- Snug fitting – While some masks, such as the FFP masks (see below), offer a high level of protection, remember that these types of masks are only effective in keeping you safe if the mask is properly fitted. Having a gaping hole above your nose means that air can leak in and out and the mask will not offer as much protection. It is also believed that facial hair and masks are not a good combo. The hair growth widens the gap between the face and the mask, meaning that more air can enter and escape. The clean-shaven look is very pandemic friendly!
Mask with a valve or without a valve?
Ever wondered whether you should buy a mask with or without a valve? According to various sources that we read, masks with valves are less effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the CDC has specifically said that it does not recommend using masks with valves or vents because they allow respiratory droplets to escape from the mask into the air around you.
Several airlines, including JetBlue and United Airlines, have banned masks with valves and will not let passengers board the plane if they are wearing them.
While masks with valves may be more comfortable to wear, making it easier for you to exhale and keeping you cooler, because they allow so much air to escape from the mask, they actually defeat the purpose of wearing a face-covering in the first place.
These kinds of masks were originally designed for construction workers who did not want to breathe in chemicals and dust but didn’t mind what they breathed out. When it comes to COVID-19, however, wearing a mask is meant to protect those around you, as well as yourself.
Best Face Masks for Travel – According to our Readers
- Cost – $10 US / mask
- Reusability – It is not recommended that the average person wear an N95 more than once. According to MedPageToday, N95 masks can be safely decontaminated using ultraviolet light or vaporised hydrogen peroxide. This process can only happen two or three times without compromising the safety of the mask. After that it should be thrown away. Of course, travellers don’t have quick access to ultraviolet light (now that the Full Moon Party is cancelled!) and so this is not a viable option.
N95 masks offer the highest level of protection to the wearer. (Note that these masks are known as respirators rather than face masks.) At the beginning of the pandemic, governments advised that N95s should be reserved only for frontline medical workers.
However, since the pandemic has dragged on, it is now possible to get hold of these online from certain online retailers, for example, these N95 masks, certified by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) in the USA.
N95 masks are very expensive, around $10 US per mask and should not be worn more than once. They are also not so easy to breathe in and not very comfortable, especially for long periods.
Community Verdict: Are N95s a good option for travel?
- “As a nurse, a surgical mask is your best bet for travel. N95s are saved for when you know you are going to be exposed to a Covid positive person or aerosol generating procedures. I think I would pass out if I had to wear a N95 longer than an hour or two though.” – Becca K
“For my recent trip, I wore a surgical mask, then changed it to an N95 before boarding the plane. My flight was just less than an hour.” – Ady
FFP Masks (FFP2 / KN95 / KF94 Respirators)
- Cost: Approx. $3 US / mask
- Reusability: We could not find any recommendations for how to clean or disinfect these types of masks. It is recommended that they be used only once.
A mask with this many letters in front of its name must be good right?! If you’re looking for a clear explanation on the differences between these types of masks, compared with the N95 masks above, then check out this article which explains it much better than I ever could.
In brief, FFP stands for ‘Filtering Face Piece’ and actually, all of the filtration masks (N95, KN95, KF94, FFP3, FFP2 and FFP1) fall into this category. The reason for the different acronyms is the certification process that the mask has undertaken.
- The KN95 mask is currently the most common of these types of masks and is certified in China.
- The FFP2 face mask is certified according to European standards.
- KF94 is the Korean standard.
All of these masks, while not as safe as the N95 mask, offer a similar level of protection to each other, claiming to filter out 94%+ of airborne particles.
Community Verdict: Are FFPs a good option for travel?
- “For flying I would use at least FFP2 or an N95 respirator.” – Kamil S
- “We flew on a French airline in September, and they refused the FFP2. Masks worn on board the aircraft HAD to be surgical masks. Something about the thickness of the FFP2, and the amount of O2 you get when breathing through them. But I don’t know if all airlines apply the same rules.” – Frank L
- Cost: $0.30 US / mask
- Reusability: Surgical masks should be thrown away after each use since washing them can damage the layers and therefore limit the level of protection.
The ubiquitous pale blue medical masks are the cheapest mask available and have been recommended by many health professionals as the best mask for everyday use since the beginning of the pandemic. Some airlines have actually made surgical masks the only masks that you are permitted to wear onboard the aeroplane.
While the surgical mask does not offer the same level of protection for the wearer as the FFP masks (45-55% filtration according to this article by Zansors), they are believed to be effective in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus to others. Therefore, technically, if every passenger on board a plane was wearing a surgical mask, the rate of infection would be low.
If you weren’t confused enough already with all the numbers and letters, surgical masks also have levels (1-4) of effectiveness. Levels 3-4 offer the greatest level of protection as they have a higher ply. The ply is the number of layers. The greater the ply, the more layers and yep you guessed it, the thicker the cloth.
To increase the level of personal protection, some people choose to double (or even triple) up on surgical masks or wear a cloth mask plus a surgical mask. US Chief Medical Advisor Dr Fauci even said that double masking makes ‘common sense’.
It is widely believed that the more layers in your mask, the greater the level of protection, though you have to make sure you can still breathe! If you want to maximise your protection but don’t like the idea of double masking, consider pairing your mask with a face shield instead.
Here’s how to make your surgical mask fit better:
Community Verdict: Are surgical masks a good option for travel?
- “Surgical masks are the best. I am a nurse and have to wear them at work. I find the N95 is hard to wear any longer than a couple of hours.” – Brenda C
- “Surgical level 3 is what I’ve worn on my flights and I bring an N95 for when I’m walking through the busy/packed parts of the airport. I also bought Lysol wipes for the seats. A surgical level 3 mask is just a thicker mask than the normal surgical level 1. ” – Ashley F
- “The most effective is the N95 for sure. But if you’re concerned about comfort I think the surgical masks are the most breathable…. but I don’t know how effective they are. I would use two of them or put them under a cloth one while going through security.” – Allison K
Reusable Fabric Masks for Travel
Here are some reusable fabric face masks that get excellent reviews online and have been made with material that claims to filter out 90%+ of airborne virus particles. Please note that the effectiveness of the following masks has not been verified by South East Asia Backpacker. We encourage you to do your own research when purchasing a face covering.
1. HaloLife with Nanofilter Technology
- Cost: $19.95
- Buy Now Direct with HALOLIFE. (Affiliate link). Sign Up And Receive A Free 3 Pack of Filters With Any Mask Purchase Using Code FREEFILTERS
Reusability: You can hand wash your mask in hot water with detergent. It is recommended that you replace the filter each week if you are using it every day in public. For occasional use, you can replace the filter every 2-4 weeks.
The HALOLIFE mask contains a ‘nanofilter’ (made of nanofiber) that is effective for up to 200 hours and claims to capture over 97.9% of airborne particles. (The technology was tested in New Zealand in June 2020 by Nelson Labs.) The mask is made of 80% polyester and 20% lycra, meaning it’s comfortable and breathable and is compounded with antibacterial and hypoallergenic materials.
The mask comes with one replaceable halo filter and new ones can be bought for 9.99 EUR for a pack of three. The mask comes in several colours and all are equipped with nanofilter technology.
For those of you that wear glasses, this mask could be a good choice as the latex nose pad (which is also replaceable) prevents air leaks and glasses fogging! The chin wrap provides an air-tight seal even to those who don’t want to say goodbye to their facial hair and the ear loops are adjustable. Owing to the materials used in its construction, the HALOLIFE mask is also great for those with sensitive skin.
HALOmask also claims to donate a mask to charity with every purchase that you make. (You can purchase your HaloLife Mask here via our referral link!)
Team verdict – “I have tried out a load of different masks from the light surgical masks to the heavier and more protective FFPs. I find that the HaloLife mask offers a good combination of comfort and safety. The adjustable ear loops make it snug fitting and the material is really soft on my skin. I am able to wear the mask for long periods without feeling out of breath, too hot or smothered. Also, the filter is light and really easy to replace – I have found this a bit of a faff with other reusable fabric masks that I’ve tried.” – Nikki Scott
- Cost: 17 GBP
- Currently Unavailable
- Reusability: Yes! There is no limit on the number of times that the CurbMask can be washed. For best results, it is recommended that you hand wash or wash in the machine at lower than 60 degrees. Do not tumble dry.
CurbMasks are made using multiple layers of material; a soft cotton lining, a space layer and an outer fabric made with highly breathable material. Due to the technology and design, the UK family-run company claims to have made the most comfortable and breathable mask on the market! Well, the reviews are pretty darn good, with many people claiming that they are the most comfortable mask for long-haul flights. (Apparently, they were ‘road tested’ on a return flight from the UK to New Zealand!)
They offer a wide variety of colours and designs and even have a range for kids. The masks are ‘dual-fit’ meaning that there are two ways of wearing them, depending on the shape of your face or your preferences. On one side, the mask is curved (which is great for people who wear glasses and/or sunglasses) and on the other side, it is straight. There are also two sizes for each mask, S-M or M-L (check out the size guide on their website for more info.) We also like that each mask comes with a handy pouch (they like to call it the ‘Curb Caddy’) where you can store your mask when you are not wearing it to keep it clean.
All in all, a comfortable, reusable mask at a good price!
3. är Nanofilter Mask
- Cost: 29.90 EUR
- Buy Now Direct with är. (Affiliate Link.)
- Reusability: The material of the mask is reportedly ‘self-cleaning’ which means that it does not need to be washed. The masks contain a removable filter, which can be replaced (and should be replaced roughly after two weeks of regular wearing). The filters cost 11.90 EUR for a pack of three.
The är mask uses a treatment called ViralOff® which claims to reduce 99.8% of the virus particles on the surface of the mask within two hours. This is a brand new self-cleaning technology that also prevents the inhalation of pollen, pollution and other viruses, as well as COVID-19. The technology was made by a Swedish company called Polygiene® and claims to not interfere with the epidermis’ natural bacteria, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin.
In addition to ViralOff®, the mask is made with a cutting-edge fabric known as ‘Eco Acqua Zero’ which is water-resistant. This helps to absorb and remove water from the inside of the mask. This should help to reduce the build-up of dirt in your pores and the resulting ‘maskne’!
The mask comes with a replaceable filter that has an aluminium piece at the top so that you can adjust the mask over your nose for a more cosy fit. There is foam along the top of the aluminium which makes it more comfortable when wearing for longer periods and also prevents leakage. The mask also had adjustable straps (complete with a small buckle) so that the mask fits snugly on different size heads.
The masks can be purchased with or without an exhalation valve. While the exhalation valve is made to allow you to breathe out more easily, remember that masks with exhalation valves are not permitted on planes due to the safety of the other passengers.
4. Wise Protec Anti-Viral Breathe Better Mask
- Cost: 25 GBP
- Reusability: The mask can be reused and retains the viral protection for up to 50 washes.
Another mask that gets very good reviews is the Wise Protec Anti-Viral Breathe Better Mask. The mask is designed to be worn for long periods so it is ideal for long haul flights. The mask is antibacterial and antiviral and claims to reduce 99.5% of Sars-Cov-2 on contact with the mask.
The mask is designed to self-clean within 24 hours and therefore does not need to be machine washed at high temperatures or ironed. After wearing, it is recommended that you hand-wash the mask in warm water and leave it to dry.
For those of you who have throats that are sensitive to air conditioning and pollution, you may appreciate the herbal properties of this mask. Compounds of camphor and echinacea are used in the fabric. Both substances have been used for centuries to treat common colds, throat pain and coughs. In addition, camphor oil has been said to promote good sleep.
Reviews state that the mask is one of the most comfortable and breathable models on the market, whilst giving the wearer high protection against COVID-19.
5. Happy Masks Pro Series
- Cost: $24 US
- Buy Now Direct with Happy Masks. (Affiliate Link.)
- Reusability: The masks can be safely used for up to 250 hours and hand washed up to 50 times with no reduction in performance. To wash, soak the mask in warm water for 10 minutes, rinse and leave to dry. Due to the nano-fibre filter inside the masks, they are not machine washable.
Happy Masks are a family-run US-Taiwanese company that has created a mask that claims to block 99.9% of bacterial and viral airborne particles. The unique ‘parrot beak’ design allows for easy and even airflow that leaves plenty of space for your nose and mouth, which means no more muffled voices or stuffy breathing!
The masks are a particular hit with kids as they’re comfortable, lightweight and come in a range of funky designs. They come in three sizes, two sizes for adults and one size for kids, and each mask includes an adjustable nose wire and adjustable ear loops that make sure the mask fits well on a variety of face shapes.
The masks are made of a wafer-thin nanofibre membrane that blocks particulate matter (PM) down to 0.3 microns and has been tested by Nelson Labs (in the US) and the Taiwan Textile Institute. Despite the powerful protection the masks offer, they are one of the most breathable and easy to wear masks on the market. Perfect for a family trip!
Do you have a reusable fabric face mask that you love? Tell us about it in the South East Asia Backpacker Community!