We don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in 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. Governments across the world have introduced compulsory mask-wearing (in some cases, even when outside) and airlines have made masks mandatory for all passengers.
So, which is the best face mask for travelling on an aeroplane?
If you’re taking a flight 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 (Amazon have even launched their own face mask store!), but some masks seem to be more focused on fashion 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 on board?
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. Hopefully then, you can decide which mask is the best for you!
Also read (opens in new tab):
- How to avoid getting sick while travelling in 2021.
- Coronavirus and the status of travel in Southeast Asia.
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.
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, 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 panting for breath! 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 of time, 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 so much waste, you may prefer to invest in a fabric mask 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. Our ears have really taken a beating over the past year and many people look for a mask with adjustable straps so that it fits better and relieves pressure behind the ears. Some people prefer the strap that 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 cloth 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 2021.
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 which 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 plan 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, dust and other substances, but didn’t mind what they breathed out. When it comes to Coronavirus, however, wearing a mask is meant to protect those around you, as well as yourself.
Best 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 so 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.” – 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 surgical 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 on board the airline.
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 yarns that are twisted together to make the fabric. 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 recently 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!
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. I’m not sure if you can order them or not, I work in a COVID ICU so we have access to them at work. Hope you can find something you feel comfortable in!” – 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
Here are some reusable fabric 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. är Nanofilter Mask
- Cost: 29.90 EUR
- 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 natural bacterial flora of your skin.
In addition to ViralOff®, the mask is also made with a cutting-edge fabric known as ‘Eco Acqua Zero’ which is water resistant. This helps to absorb and remove water from inside of the mask.
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 s 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.
2. 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.
One 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 of time so is ideal for long haul flights. The material that the mask is made from is specifically designed to repel water and organic matter which creates an invisible barrier to keep you safe. 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 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.
3. HaloLife with Nanofilter Technology
- Cost: 17.50
- 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 HALOmask contains a ‘nanofilter’ (made of nanofiber) that is effective for up to 200 hours and claims to capture over 99% 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 the 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 leak 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. The straps are also adjustable so that you can take some pressure off the back of your ears.
HALOmask also claims to donate a mask to charity with every purchase that you make.
Do you have a reusable fabric face mask that you love? Tell us about it in the South East Asia Backpacker Community!