Think the pandemic is over? Think again. The CDC is again urging people to wear masks in schools and public indoor spaces in sections of the US where there’s still high or substantial coronavirus transmission.
The shift comes in response to the fact that mutations of the virus are stronger and sneakier. The Delta variant is around twice as transmissible as earlier strains and making its way through undervaccinated areas of the country and globe.
There’s a lot more to this story — National Geographic did a great job explaining the CDC’s reasoning, and NPR published an easy-to-read map of where masks are most needed. The big takeaway is, with just 49 percent of the nation vaccinated, and rare cases of vaccinated people contracting and transmitting the virus, we won’t be fully ditching masks anytime soon.
Of course, you are going to have a better time sticking to the latest scientific advice if you have masks you love. To ensure that's the case, we have compiled the following roundup of our favorite masks, the result of countless hours of testing by our team over the past several months.
Here you'll find masks for all sorts of purposes — just what you need to ride this unholy beast of a pandemic out safely.
— Tanner Bowden contributed to this guide.
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.
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.
Uniqlo Airism 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."
Asics Runners Mask
Best 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.
Outdoor Research Face Mask Kit
"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)."
686 Polygiene ViralOff Archetype Face Mask
Best-Looking Technical Mask
The first edition of this mask cracked the Wellness category of last year's GP100, and this new 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.
Kitsbow Face Mask, Reusable, HEPA Type
Best-Looking Filter 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.
Happy Mask Pro
Best for Quick Errands
Don't let this mask's superlative lead you to believe it's lacking in protection. You get five layers, including a 3-ply nanofiber membrane filter, lab-tested to provide 99.9 percent filtration of viruses, bacteria, pollen and other pollutants. Even so, its slim profile and simple, adjustable earloops make it easy to throw on when you're taking care of business around town. Our tester also shares perhaps the best comfort endorsement ever: "We got them for my 3-year-old to wear all day at school, no complaints."
Best for Cold Weather
Think of this clever offering as a permanently tied bandana that's actually big enough to fit around your face, no knot necessary. Elastic in the neck area ensures a tight but comfortable fit, while the comfy fleece lining provides plenty of warmth. While the Snowdana is not specifically designed for the pandemic — it's been around for years — its thickness is uniquely suited for it, and we've been loving its fuller coverage as New York City temperatures dip into the teens. It comes in literally dozens of colors too.
We would be remiss not to note the ingenuity of this mask's approach, which is rivaled only by the keychain at the end of this guide. RYST is essentially a slim band that attaches to your wrist via magnets, then unzips to reveal a fully functional mask that loops over your ears. Made in Portugal out of high-thread-count Italian fabric, it's rather thin but more comfortable than you might think — and just so damn clever we couldn't leave it out.
United By Blue Salvaged Hemp Blend Face Mask
Best for Giving Back
These feel-good masks are made of deadstock fabric — a blend of hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel — that would otherwise go unused. And for every three-pack sold, UBB donates a mask to Chosen 300, which distributes them to Philadelphia residents experiencing homelessness. But are they any good? "The masks are double-layered and even have a pocket for filter insertion," our tester reveals. "They're comfy and about as non-intrusive as masks can get."
Black Strap The Hood Balaclava
Best for Snow Sports
Like the Snowdana, The Hood Balaclava was not specifically made to combat the pandemic. But its two-layer construction — a nylon/elastene blend on the outside and polyester on the inside — provides protection from wind, snow and airborne viruses. The hinged design slips easily over the head and comfortably under a helmet. We just rocked it in the mountains this past weekend — and it's great for long winter motorcycle rides too.
Voormi Everyday Gaiter
Best for Beards
Yes, it has just a single (thick) layer, but one of the first face covering options we tested remains among our favorites. Made of comfy, odor-fighting merino wool, the Everyday Gaiter features integrated ear loops and a drop-neck cut (short in back, long in front). That makes it easy to wear on your neck and pull up over your nose when necessary. But we're burying the lead: the generous drape of the front makes it perfect for the more hirsute among us.
Matador Keychain Mask
Best for 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.”
Price: $14.99, $24.99/2