We put the protectors to the test to bring you the top choices to travel with
Poor air quality is blamed for thousands of premature deaths across the UK, and the Volkswagen emissions scandal and pressure from climate committees to improve energy efficiency have pushed the issue up the political agenda.
Plans to ban petrol and diesel cars in the UK are accelerating. The transport secretary Grant Shapps announced in October of last year that the government’s target to ensure all new car models are zero-emmission by 2040 may be brought forward to 2035. Meanwhile diesel car drivers now face a £12.50 daily fee to drive in the centre of London after the capital launched its ultra low emission zone in April 2019. Although governments here and abroad are beginning to take the problem seriously, many individuals are taking matters into their own hands by purchasing a face mask.
The air in major cities, including London, is dirtiest of all. A growing body of research suggests smaller particulate matter – the term for particles found in the air including dust, dirt, soot and smoke – is responsible for the most adverse health effects. Particulates are measured in microns, equal to one millionth of a metre. Those that are 50+ microns in diameter can be seen by the naked eye, but those measuring 2.5 microns or smaller, are invisible – and, according to a government report, pose the greatest health risk.
Particulate types include asbestos dust from car and lorry brake linings, road dust, fumes from diesel vehicles and pollen. The variation in size of these particulates comes from the type of fuel and how efficiently it is burned.
Some masks are capable of cleaning pollutants measuring 0.3 of a micron from the air you breathe. The N95 and N99 labels that are commonly (though confusingly, not universally) used to describe effectiveness refer to the amount of airborne particles that are filtered – 95 per cent and 99 per cent respectively.
As one technician at Respro, the market leader for anti-pollution masks, puts it: “It’s not uncommon for 3000l of air to pass through your lungs while cycling to and from work on a half-hour round trip. Multiply that by five days a week, 50 weeks a year, and that’s a lot of pollution for your body to deal with.”
Despite the obvious health benefits, wearing a mask can be uncomfortable, and some users complain that they restrict the amount of oxygen it is possible to inhale in each breath. It is for this reason that getting the right mask – and making sure it fits properly – is essential.
There are many different types of mask on the market. In terms of shape, there are those that cover the whole of the lower face, including the nose and mouth, versus those which cover just the mouth – for these you should use the nose only to breathe out. The masks on offer also differ by the technology they use. The most basic (not reviewed below) offer little more protection than a surgical mask, while the top-end coverings come with sophisticated multi-layer filters.
It is vital that you choose a correctly sized mask, as each will sit on the face slightly differently. Best would be to visit a local stockist in person. Alternatively, you can take detailed measurements to ensure the mask does the job of filtering the air you are breathing and is comfortable at the same time.
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Respro® Ultralight mask (N99):
Respro’s ultralight mask uses a stretchy fabric that allows the face to breathe in hot and humid conditions, which made it comfortable to wear for the duration of our 40-minute commute. It comes in four sizes, boasts two exhale valves (which allow the air you are breathing out to leave the mask) and an “unbreakable” nose clip that keeps the mask snug to your face. The two valves improve airflow performance, making breathing a little easier and reducing condensation that inevitably builds up in the mask, especially on cold mornings. The filters, which are designed to filter “sub-micron” particulates (those measuring smaller than one micron), were also able to cut out bad smells, something which was less noticeable with other masks we tried and which made traffic-clogged streets a little more pleasant.
Respro® Techno (N99):
The techno mask is made from a neoprene skin that neatly follows the contours of the face, giving it a snug fit and ensuring all the air is forced through the filters. Like the ultralight, this mask comes with the filter for sub-micron particulates. However, we found the techno a little less comfortable than the first Respro product we tested, in part because it does not have rapid airflow valves, meaning there is slightly more resistance when breathing in and out. As with the Ultralight mask, the Velcro fastening makes adjusting the fit fuss-free. Again, there are several sizes to choose from.