Think the pandemic is over? Omicron would like a word. According to The New York Times, the daily average of reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. currently sits at 168,409, up 38 percent from two weeks ago. And while being vaccinated lightens the blow, wearing a mask is still the best way to stay safe in enclosed spaces.
The CDC recently issued new guidelines for what constitutes a proper mask, based on newer designations issued by the ASTM International and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Our friends at Prevention have done a wonderful job breaking them down here, but the fundamentals aren't all that surprising: two layers or more of washable, breathable fabric that completely covers the nose and mouth and fits against the sides of the face and nose without gaps.
Of course, you are going to have a better time being diligent with your mask wearing if you have masks you love. To ensure that's the case, we have compiled this lean, mean guide to our favorite masks, the result of countless hours of testing by our team over the past several months.
— Tanner Bowden contributed to this guide.
Best Overall Face Mask
While brands have continued to innovate new ways to cover your mug, one of the originals is still among the best. The Sportsmask boasts a number of cool features, but the most notable is comfort. The structure, wire nose bridge and soft fabric combine to make it feel as seamless as Flanders' ski suit. When working out, the polyurethane open-cell foam is both breathable and protective, while the stretchy ear loops make it easy to don and doff when necessary. For both training and daily use, the Sportsmask is a champ. Want more coverage? Under Armour recently launched a Fleece Gaiter, a ½ Gaiter, and even a mask-integrating shirt.
Best Upgrade Face Mask
We admit to being skeptical of a $60 mask, but this one is different: it's an extended screen-like mask body designed to accept both reusable and disposable filters. That shape is framed by medical-grade silicone, highlighted by an aluminum bar embedded in a gasket at the nose area, plus adjustable straps for the kind of tight fit the CDC endorses. The result is a little pocket of air to safely breathe in and — fittingly for an eyewear brand — the most fog-free shades situation we've ever experienced. The MSK3 also makes you look a bit like Tom Hardy's Bane, which could be a pro or a con, depending which way your comic book movie loyalties lean.
Best Budget Face Mask
"So cheap for three, and it has three layers with a built-in filter," our tester explains. "Plus, instead of clinging to your face, it's more like cupping your face, which makes it easier to breathe." The inner layer is Uniqlo's moisture-wicking Airism material, which the brand also uses to make T-shirts and undies comfy. The second layer is the integrated filter and the third layer blocks UV rays. The only downside is that it can be tricky to find the right size for you among four options (S, for kids, through XL). "But when you do find a size that fits," raves our tester, "it's glorious."
Best Face Mask for Working Out
Introduced last fall, the Asics Runners Mask aims to remedy all the annoying aspects of exercising with a mask. It's made of a fast-drying, water-repellent fabric that cools the air as it passes through its fibers; it offers more interior space to prevent claustrophobia; its fastening system includes multiple adjustment points for a comfortable fit; vents below the jaw increase airflow without spreading disease-carrying droplets. Those features add up to quite a thoughtful take on what a performance-oriented cover can be.
Face Friendliest Face Mask
"Of all the face masks I've tested — fitted face masks, face masks for running — Outdoor Research's is my favorite," our tester reports. "My main reason is comfort; its polyester fabric is lightweight and easy on the skin. That goes for the ear loops too, which are adjustable but won't slip around on their own. It's one of the few face masks that doesn't drop beneath my nose when I'm talking (or otherwise trying to operate my face as I normally would)."
Best-Looking Technical Face Mask
The first edition of this mask cracked the Wellness category of 2020's GP100, and this three-layer version is even better. Adjustable elastic straps, a metal nose strip and a hypoallergenic merino wool blend inner surface max out the comfort and fit, while a second layer of polyamide nylon and a third of polyester spandex — with an antimicrobial Polygiene ViralOff finish — ramp up the protection levels. Even so, the final product looks clean and uncomplicated, in seven different colorways to boot.
Best-Looking Filter Face Mask
Kitsbow's craftspeople cut and sew its masks in the shape of an actual face for optimal comfort, while an internal bridge-of-nose wire provides a secure fit. There are two layers of cotton for high-exertion, low-threat situations. Want a little more protection? Drop in one of the two included filters (a replacement three-pack costs $10). Not unlike 686's mask, this option offers a lot of protection and performance in a streamlined, unassuming form — and seven stylish colors as well.
Best Face Mask for Kids
These feel-good masks are made of deadstock fabric — a blend of hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel — that would otherwise go unused. But are they any good? "The masks are double-layered and even have a pocket for filter insertion," our tester, who has tried out a similar, no longer available adult version, reveals. "They're comfy and about as non-intrusive as masks can get." The adjustable ripcord goes easier on young ears, and is also convenient for hanging the mask around the neck when not in use.
Best Face Mask When You Just Plain Forgot
Stashed in a silicone case not much bigger than a thumb drive, this clever mask is always ready in a pinch. Soft and comfy with adjustable ear loops, it's easy to pull out and re-pack. That said, it's rather thin and small and needs periodic adjusting during extended wear. As our tester notes: "Not ideal as an everyday mask, but a solid option for oh shit I forgot my mask, good thing I always keep one on my keychain.” We have listed/linked to the 2-pack version here (a single costs $14.99), because if you really do need to use this thing, it's probably best to double up.