As pollution levels reach shocking levels all over China, people are once again getting very particular about their particulate matter. The latest wave of pollution in major Chinese cities has seen a proliferation of all kinds of masks breaking out in convenience stores, Taobao and just about anywhere else a trader can make an easy buck.
Packaging on the masks lure consumers in with technical buzzwords – N 95, PM 2.5, anti-pollution, anti-bacterial, and anything that sounds suitably scientific – and every other package seems to have the 3M logo or at least something vaguely resembling it. Fortunately, The Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission released a report in late 2013, looking at the efficacy of 17 different disposable masks commonly available on the Chinese market.
Staff at the commission purchased two masks in stores and 15 online. Using the GB 2626-2006 filtertype dust respirator mask as their standard, they tested each mask for filtration efficiency, leakage, resistance to breathing in, resistance to breathing out as well as several other indicators.
Two masks didn’t even meet the basic GB 2626-2006 standard requirements. In terms of the primary criteria, filtration efficiency, there were seven samples with a filtration efficiency greater than 90 percent , eight samples that were less than 50 percent, the lowest mask only managed a mealy 6.5 percent. The detailed results of the study can be found on this spreadsheet.
Best Five Disposable Masks
Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a family physician with Beijing United Family Healthcare posted his take on the results on his website My Health Beijing.
“I narrowed the list down to a handful of the top five you should look for, all of which had filtration efficiency over 95%, leakage rates under 7%, and low breathing resistance rates. They are the 3M 9041 and 9010; MASkin 6135; 3L N95; and Gangkai KN95 港凯KN95防尘口罩. My vote for the best is the usual gold standard: 3M, with two masks that did well here.”
One mask that didn’t make his list was GirodMedical, which actually had the highest score with an impressive filtration efficiency of 99% and leakage rate of just 0.7%, but its was more difficult to breathe than with the other masks. No mask achieved the holy grail of both perfect filtration and no leakage, whilst allowing for good ventilation.
Many western consumers in China question the authenticity of the 3M products and model numbers of the mask sold in stores and online, especially as they don’t match with model numbers in their US website. Here is 3M China’s official webpage listing their extensive array of masks available for the China market.
Worst Five Disposable Masks
Dr. Saint Cyr listed some of the worst masks in terms of poor filtration and high air leakage. One factor in diminishing the effectiveness of the masks is the use of pleats, “all those pleated ones just don’t seal well, even if the fabric is technically effective,” he said.
The biggest loser on this list was the knitted mask (针织口罩) by Beijing ZhongBei Bojian Technology and Trading, it was only able to keep out 6.5 percent of particles; you’re probably better off wearing a bandanna or a napkin!
The worst: Knitted Mask by Beijing ZhongBei Bojian Technology and Trading Co., LTD.
As for other popular masks not on this list (that we’ve mentioned in a previous blog on pollution masks), I’ve worn the Respro mask for a couple years now and part of the problem is that it looks very menacing, my Chinese friend described me as looking like a “未来战士” (futuristic warrior) – think Darth Vader.
It also has definite leakage around the nose and on the chin, particularly when I grow a beard. The Singaporean Totobobo mask looks quite odd as well; Dr. Saint Cyr put it best when he described the wearer as “resembling some sort of alien with white gills.” Over the year that I’ve worn it, it never achieved a hermetic seal, with a lot of air always coming through under the chin,whether I had a beard or not. The elastic band on the mask is also thin, flimsy and degrades very quickly.
I’ve tried the so-called “Invisible Face Mask“, which is essentially a pair of white nose plugs, and felt very self conscious when wearing them. I feel that I get extra looks when wearing them, way beyond the normal “laowai stare”. Again, they don’t achieve the hermetic seal, as I can easily smell pollutants such as tobacco smoke, coal, and automobile exhaust fumes when wearing them. As for now, the search for the holy grail of face masks continues. We will be sure to let you know when we find it.