Your Cloth and Surgical Masks Leak. Does This Thingy I Bought on eBay Fix the Problem?

My badger seal

I love my cloth masks. They have no leakage around my cheeks or chin. However, like all masks, they leak around my nose when I don’t use nose wire. And nose wires are so uncomfortable I rarely wear them.

Research on mask effectiveness at preventing covid, whether it’s how much they prevent infected wearers from spreading it to others or how much they protect wearers from getting infected in the first place, is all over the place. There are too many variables, and masks do not lend themselves to careful RCTs. However, though it’s difficult to figure out the degree of effectiveness, masks clearly prevent wearers from spreading covid to a useful degree, and also provide some (possibly small) protection to the wearers.

One thing which comes through clearly in the research I’ve seen is that masks work much better when they don’t leak. One study (I couldn’t find it again, sorry) showed that nose leakage is less bad than cheek leakage or chin leakage, but that study might be wrong, and all research shows that zero leakage offers the best protection.

I’ve become more cautious about covid over the past month or two. The Delta variant is more widespread and everyone’s vaccines are wearing off. The risk to me as an individual is low even if I get infected, but I don’t want to infect my parents, who are much more vulnerable and whose vaccine wear-off is further along (they got Moderna, which seems to be the longest-lasting the vaccines, but that’s not saying much). Sometimes I add inserts to my cloth masks. Alas, the inserts I’ve bought which allegedly filter out tiny particles are so small that they leak within the mask (i.e. I end up breathing through the parts of the mask which aren’t covered by the inserts). The inserts won’t do much unless they’re pressed against a small area around my mouth and nostrils.

Enter the badger seal, a thingy people at the University of Wisconsin-Madison invented. They provide instructions for making your own. I didn’t want to make them, so I bought some on eBay.

Does the badger seal stop leakage?

Yes. It’s more effective than the nose wires I’ve used. They don’t improve the seal around my cheeks or chin since the seals in those parts of my cloth mask are already good, but the seal ensures that, when I add an insert, I breathe through instead of around the insert.

When I use the badger seal, the air within the mask gets moister. That’s less comfortable, but it also shows that the seal is actually sealing.

Is the badger seal comfortable?

It’s more comfortable than nose wire, but that’s not saying much. I prefer having the foam rather than metal pressed around my nose. I trying wearing the headband in a few configurations. The headband is most comfortable when I wear it high, well above my ears, but still far enough back on my skull that it holds.

What’s least comfortable is the chin band. I don’t need it to seal my chin since my cloth masks already seal well down there, but the chin band also keeps the seal on my nose tight. However, over time, I’ve gotten used to it. I never got used to nose wire.

Does the badger seal break?

All the time. The foam pops out of the transparent tubing. It’s easy to shove the foam back into the tube.

I broke my badger seal just for this blog post (it’s fixed now)

Who got the other two badger seals?

My parents.

Do they use them?


My parents use badly fitting masks with terrible leakage (especially my dad). I’ve explained the problem to them. They understand my explanation. Then they use the loose-and-leaky masks anyway.

Until I gave them badger seals.

My dad says the badger seal improves the seal. I believe him. I wish I had gotten the larger size since he doesn’t fit it around his chin, but even without the chin fit, it’s probably dramatically improved the seal on his mask.

My mother favors N95 and N95-equivalent masks because of the higher level of protection, but when she wears a cloth mask or surgical mask, she uses the badger seal (she was in the habit of wearing surgical masks which constantly fell off her face).

So if someone you know wears badly fitted cloth or surgical masks, consider giving them a badger seal.

When do you use the badger seal?

When I’m outdoors and away from people, or only have brief encounters with others outdoors, I don’t use the seal. My cloth masks are more comfortable without the seal.

When I enter an indoor space other than my home for three minutes or less (such as a quick purchase at a store), I use the seal on my cloth mask but don’t use an insert.

When I spend over three minutes in an indoor space other than my home, or when someone outside my bubble (such as a plumber) is in my home, I use a cloth mask + insert + badger seal. I doubt the inserts bring my cloth mask up to N95-like effectiveness, but with the badger seal, they are probably more effective than a badly fitted N95 mask.

I don’t love the badger seal the way I love my cloth masks, but it’s useful. If I ever get covid, in combination with my masks, the seal might stop me from infecting others. And even if it only increases my protection from getting infected by a few percentage points, that might make the difference between infection and escaping infection.

Do you use a badger seal? Do you want one? Would you want to read a post about my mask inserts? Tell me in the comments.

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