It’s not something we typically think about while preparing for a trip – what will the air quality be like? Destinations like the Faroe Islands are known for having superb air quality, but what about big cities in Asia? While preparing for a recent trip to Qatar and China, I had a lot of questions about choosing an air pollution mask for China, especially since everyone kept warning me about how smoggy it can get in Beijing and Shanghai.
I decided to investigate it a little further, partly out of curiosity and partly because my father and I (we were traveling together) both suffer from allergies. I knew that popping a Zyrtec wasn’t going to cut it.
This is my story with a few tips and photos from my trip for anyone trying to choose the best air pollution mask for China.
First, I explored all the options available. Basically, there are a myriad of air pollution masks, but not all are created equal. Let’s get started with the three basic types.
Types of Air Pollution Masks
This is your basic surgical mask. As you might imagine, it’s exactly what a surgeon wears in the operating room to protect the patient from any contaminants from his/her saliva. It also protects the surgeon from inhaling or ingesting any fluids from the patient.
Pros: In terms of comfort, they are quite comfortable because they hardly weigh anything at all. They are typically made of cotton and are inexpensive (about 80 cents each). Great for mild days when allergens may be present, which is a very rare occurrence in China.
Cons: These masks do not fit well against the face, even when you pinch the metal band at the bridge of the nose. They don’t create a seal to block out air pollutants and they have no filter, which is what contributes to their dismal filtering efficiency rating of 57 (A rating of 100% indicates a perfect seal where nothing can get in or out). When I was in China I saw hundreds of people wearing surgical masks and it made me sick to my stomach to think of the false sense of security they had. Then again, there were others with no mask at all, which is also pretty scary to think about when you consider the recent story of a Chinese artist whose air pollution vacuum video went viral. He literally made a brick (yes, a brick) from the pollutants he managed to collect by just walking around Beijing with an industrial vacuum.
Overall: Don’t do it. All you will be getting is a false sense of protection with a mask that you can’t adjust.
These are masks that you can wear a few times before tossing. They were developed with factory and construction workers in mind so they are meant to create a good seal around the face to stop any particles from entering the nose or mouth. A popular model is the 3M® 9332 with exhalation valve to remove moisture from the face (see below).
Pros: Price point is excellent. A single mask will run you about $5.50, depending wear you buy it. It also has an excellent filtering efficiency of over 90%.
Cons: If you want to look like you’re headed to a nuclear plant disaster or anthrax contaminated zone, then this is the mask for you! No, seriously they are not very attractive and have to be thrown away after 3-4 uses, or until they start getting grayish, indicating they are dirty. That’s because you can’t change the filter. Additionally, they aren’t going to stay put during exercise or outdoor activities like extensive sightseeing around Beijing.
Overall: This is a good mask if you don’t plan on spending too much time outdoors in a place where there is significant air pollution.
Reusable masks are those that allow you to change out the filter, which means once you’ve got a keeper, it’s yours to keep. They typically come in a variety of prints and colors, and are perfect for frequent travelers like myself. Respro® is a brand of reusable pollution mask that has created more than 15 models, each designed for a specific lifestyle in mind, whether it’s playing sports in freezing temperatures, or reducing allergies in urban places.
Pros: Brands like Respro® offer you choices so you’re not just stuck with a white clinical-looking mask (although they have those models too). These masks typically come in different sizes so you can find the perfect fit (this is the key!) Once you have it, you can just change out the filters and keep using the same mask. They are made out of fabric and are machine washable, which is nice if you want to freshen it up in the washing machine. They are also ideal for biking or playing sports (or sightseeing around Beijing trying to cram all the main sites in like my father and I).
Cons: Reusable pollution masks are the priciest of the three ($40 – $65) and filter refills are sold separately. For most models, filters must be replaced after 50-70 hours of use.
Overall: Reusable masks cost more, but at least you can pick the “look” you want. The mask I used (Respro City Mask) has a charcoal filter that is ideal for “regular” days in China. By this, I mean days with an API of “Good” to “Unhealthy” (0-200 API). I wore it in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an and never once experienced an irritation or allergy attack.
Choosing an Air Pollution Mask for China
So, how do you choose the right mask?
It all depends on fit, which is why I went with the Respro. I liked how the neoprene fabric stretched over my face to create a good seal while still being comfortable, and that I could wear it with sunglasses without a problem. I also didn’t get any moisture buildup in the mask, which was one of my main concerns.
Dangers of Air Pollution
There are plenty of people who go mask-free in China, which, after learning about air pollutants, makes me cringe. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world’s top 20 cities with the worst air pollution are in China. The main source of all this pollution? Coal. China’s primary source of electricity comes from coal – about 6 million tons are burned daily. Add vehicle emissions and other sources and you’ve got a deadly smog cocktail made up of cancer-causing gases and particles.
This is exactly why protecting your lungs is important and why I wanted to write about my experience choosing an air pollution mask for China.
Images: David Hoffmann