Following up on last week’s post, I’m going to tell you what I find comfortable in cloth masks. Does everyone have the same preferences as me? No. That’s fine. I’m not trying to convince you to have the same cloth mask preferences as me. My goal is to make you think about your own preferences by sharing details about my preferences. If double layered 30 dernier calendered nylon taffeta masks with metal nose bands and elastic ea rloops are the most comfortable cloth mask for you, that’s great. I wouldn’t want to wear such a mask, but that’s me, not you.
1. EAR LOOPS VS. MASK LACES
I strongly prefer mask laces i.e. the equivalent of shoelaces which tie behind my head. I’ve tried a few types of ear loops (including tying mask laces behind my ears to form ear loops) and I don’t like any of them. I prefer putting the weight of the mask, light as it may be, on the back of my head rather than behind my ears.
That said, many kinds of ear loops exist. I haven’t tried them all. Maybe there’s an ear loop type which would work for me.
My preferred way of tying mask laces behind my head is to first put my hair into a ponytail and then tie the mask right above the ponytail. This was much harder to do when I had short hair. Luckily, my hair was getting long just when the pandemic began. I’m not cutting my hair again until I’m comfortable with not using cloth masks for a while.
2. METAL BAND FOR THE NOSE
Some of my masks can take a metal band to form a better seal on the bridge of my nose. I could also modify my other masks to take metal bands too.
I rarely insert my metal band into my masks.
The metal band makes the seal around my nose better, which is important because the bridge of my nose is the only area where I notice leaks in my mask. However, the metal band also makes my masks less comfortable. I’ve decided that, given that my city has had a consistently low covid infection rate compared to other major U.S. cities throughout the pandemic, I don’t need the metal band except in the riskiest situations. If local infection levels go up, I might change my mind.
Cloth masks which are snug against the cheeks and chin are both better sealed (and thus offer better protection) and are more comfortable. Cloth masks which are too big or too small aren’t snug.
I’d think that this was too obvious to mention if I didn’t see so many people wearing badly-fitting masks. My dad says that he doesn’t want to bother getting a mask with a better fit.
I like the basic surgical-mask-but-made-of-cloth design. It’s simple, and the folds allow the mask to mold itself to my face. Other designs are nice too. I’ve found at least one other design which works for me (if only it were made of materials I liked!) Speaking of materials…
This is the biggest consideration.
All my masks have at least one bast layer. Some have linen, some have hemp. I’d expect ramie to be similar. This makes a tremendous difference in comfort.
Nobody uses the term ‘bast layer’ or ‘bast fiber’ when they sell masks. Search for ‘hemp’ or ‘linen.’ Hemp, linen, and ramie are bast fibers.
Cotton fabrics absorb moisture, which is great for towels, but not for fabric which is against your mouth for hours. Cotton also dries slowly. Bast fibers absorb much less moisture and dry quicker. They also conduct heat, which means they sometimes have a cooling effect (this is why linen often feels cool to touch when it’s not being worn).
I don’t trust pure bast masks to filter effectively enough to offer sufficient protection. However, adding a bast layer increases the comfort of cotton masks. At first I thought the bast layer had to be against my mouth, but I’ve also found that even having a bast layer on the outside in a bast/cotton double layered mask is more comfortable than a pure cotton double layered mask.
Some of my masks have a cotton jersey layer (most cotton t-shirts are made of jersey). My homemade mask has a cotton sateen layer. Based on what I’ve read from articles like this and this, tightly woven cotton layers (such as high thread count sateen) filter more effectively than cotton knits (such as jersey). Jersey is comfortable (compared to other cottons), but my cotton sateen is also relatively comfortable, especially when paired with a bast layer. The cotton sateen I used in my homemade mask is also thin, which reduces how much moisture it absorbs. Honestly, the only reason I have masks with jersey instead of sateen is that I could purchase them and I have yet to find masks for sale which 100% match all of my most detailed preferences. However, I only prefer sateen because it’s more protective; in terms of pure comfort, jersey is better.
I don’t like any of the masks I’ve tried with synthetic layers. I’m sure there are synthetic materials for masks which are both comfortable and protective, I just haven’t encountered them.
7. HOW MANY LAYERS?
More layers = less comfort.
Currently, I use two-layered masks: cotton layer + bast layer. Some of my masks have filter pockets to insert additional layers, which I may use if I judge that my situation has become riskier.
I like cleaning my masks by dipping them in boiling water with baking soda. Boiling water disinfects the masks and also increases the cleaning power of the baking soda. This is an easy, mindless way to clean cloth masks. I let the masks sit in the hot water for a while, then rinse them with clean cold water.
This restricts me to 100% natural fabrics since I’m not comfortable with boiling synthetic fibers. When I have used masks with synthetics, I clean them with cold water + soap/baking soda only. It’s more work for me, and the soap/baking soda is less effective in cold water.
This is another reason I don’t like elastic ear loops.
Most ‘100% cotton’ clothes have polyester fibers in the seams. Finding 100% polyester free masks for sale is hard (and expensive). When I sewed my own mask it wasn’t a problem, I used 100% organic cotton thread.
Cotton takes the longest time to dry. This is another reason I don’t want more than one cotton layer in a mask.
Bast fibers release a smell when they are soaked in baking soda water, especially hot baking soda water. The mask keeps this scent for a while. I like this smell (it smells much better than my aged sweat!) but if you don’t like this smell then you probably should use pH neutral soap/detergent on your bast fiber masks or not use masks with bast fibers at all.
INVEST IN THE RIGHT CLOTH MASK FOR YOU
I had a head start because, unlike most Americans, I had experience using cloth masks before the pandemic. People might have been reluctant to put the effort (and possibly the money) into finding the cloth masks which work best for them because they believed the pandemic would only last a few more weeks/months. As someone who occasionally used cloth masks before the pandemic, I wanted to get good cloth masks regardless of when I expected the pandemic to end. I also knew, even before the pandemic, that not all cloth masks are equal, and that one or two cloth masks not working out for me didn’t mean that all cloth masks were uncomfortable.
Shoes are the best analogy. Some shoes protect feet better than other shoes. Some shoes fit better than other shoes. Some shoes are more comfortable than other shoes, and shoes which are comfortable for one person may be uncomfortable for someone else. Finding the right shoe for you may take an effort. The same applies to cloth masks.
If you have other considerations which make cloth masks more/less comfortable, please share them in the comments.