Crowd of people wearing masks
Crowd of people wearing masks
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Air pollution masks: what works - what doesn’t

Choosing the right air pollution mask can be a life-saver! Our guide will help you discern between the good and bad of air pollution masks.

To mask, or not to mask - and which mask - that is the question!


Surgical Mask Ask ten people living in an area with high air pollution levels and you will likely get a wide variety of opinions regarding air pollution masks. Some people have a particular AQI threshold they adhere to before donning the sometime uncomfortable, sometimes unattractive mask, while others decide it is a waste of money as they question their effectiveness.


What is not in question is the incredibly detrimental health effects caused by PM 2.5 pollution.  The WHO estimates that air pollution is the underlying cause of one in eight deaths worldwide.  With relatively cheap and effective masks on the market, there is no need for your health to fall victim to invisible threats in the air!

When air quality reaches an AQI  value of 150 or higher, studies show one should always mask!  

The question of “which mask,” however, is as important a decision as “to mask”.  Not all masks are created equal and some are downright useless, which is why AirVisual members have come together to give you a guide to differentiating between the good, the bad and the ugly of air pollution masks.  

Key features guiding our evaluation:




  1. Mask seal:  The key to any mask’s effectiveness is the seal. A good seal suctions to your face during inhalation.  For flexible, disposable masks, this suction should be visible, causing the paper to bend inwards creating a concave surface.  For masks with a firm plastic construction, you should be able to prevent the inflow of air by covering the filters with the palms of your hands.
  2. Pollution filter:  Your basic filter is given a rating of N90, N95 or N99. The notation stands for the percentage of PM2.5 they have been proven to block against.  A N90 filter, for example, blocks against 90% of PM2.5, N95 blocks against 95% of PM2.5, and so on.  If your goal is protection against PM2.5, an N95 mask should be your base standard.
  3. Ventilation:   Masks, of course, should be breathable. Masks that create a breathing space by resting far away from the face prevent the suffocating feeling of masks that fits a bit more snug.  This is particularly important for masks used during outdoor exercise.  Directed outflow can also help some masks from becoming moist with condensation.

We’ve been busy testing, and we’re confident to release our personal favorites - along with a helpful guide of what to avoid and why. Find out what AirVisual deems the good, the bad, and the ugly:


Our two favorites are the iDMASKand CAMBRIDGE Mask.  Each have filters enabling you to breathe pollution-, allergen-, bacteria-, and virus-, free air - with a 99.9% effectiveness in filtering out PM2.5.  These badboys were designed with your health as priority number one!



The iD Mask has a durable plastic construction with replaceable filter cartridges.  You can use this mask again and again in spells of heavy pollution with little to no wear and tear.  It’s advantage is it’s soft silicon seal which fits perfectly to the contour of any face, hence the name iDMask, a mask tailored to your identity. As we mentioned, a mask’s seal is debatably the most important element to an effective mask - and for that, you really can’t do any better than the iD Mask, which has innovated to create a comfortable and secure fit.



Cambridge MaskThe Cambridge mask takes a different approach - prioritizing portability over durability.  Unlike the iD Mask, which can feel bulky tucked away in a purse, the Cambridge mask is well suited to be taken on and off.  We like that the mask comes in a number of different styles so you don’t need to feel embarrassed for wearing a military grade pollution mask. The exhaustion valve is effective for keeping condensation from building up inside the mask.



3M 9332 Mask

3M 9332 Mask  is the best of the disposable mask variety, offering a   cheap and basic solution to staying healthy in heavy pollution.  The three panel respirator and double rubber strap help to make the seal around your nose and your chin air tight.  This mask is surprisingly breathable and effective for such a low cost solution.  


Ineffective Masks

Though a wide variety of masks are available in supermarkets and convenience stores, take note of the quality before making a purchase.  The standard cotton masks often has gaps that the pollution filter doesn’t reach.  Meanwhile, the common N95 paper masks often lack a method to tighten the straps while others lack a sturdy clip to create a tight seal around the nose.


Surgical Mask

Definitely shy away from the one strap paper or ordinary surgical masks as they have limited use blocking PM10 (larger) particles, and absolutely no use in blocking PM 2.5.  In addition to a poor filter, these masks almost always suffer from a bad seal, causing air to flow in freely from the sides of the mask.  

We’re of the opinion that these masks actually do more harm than good because they create a false sense of security.  Those who don’t know any better may actually spend more time outdoors wearing one of these masks than they normally would.  Help spread the word!  Educating others can save lives.


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