Face mask mandates may be loosening across the United States, but when it comes to travel, they’re still an essential item to bring along. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has extended its mask mandate for airplanes and airports through at least April 18, Lyft and Uber continue to require them for passengers, and some individual businesses request patrons to wear them despite city- or state-level indoor masking mandates being lifted.
Even if TSA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decide to lift the federal transportation mask mandate on April 18, there will still be plenty of travelers who will feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask for the foreseeable future.
And when it comes to “one-way masking”—meaning travelers or crew who wear a mask for added protection even if (or especially because) it’s not required and those around them are not wearing a mask—having a higher-quality mask is even more important.
Whether you need a face mask for travel due to a requirement or because of personal public health concerns, we’ve rounded up the best ones to use.
What types of face masks are allowed on airplanes?
As of press time, passengers on all flights departing in the United States, domestic and international, are required to wear a face mask. Although rules vary a little, the majority of domestic U.S. airlines do not allow bandanas, scarves, face masks with valves, or a face shield in lieu of a face mask. (Face shields are allowed if you are also wearing a mask.) Cloth masks (ideally with two or three layers), surgical masks, and KN95 and N95 masks are accepted on all major domestic airlines, including Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.
While some international airlines have begun dropping the mask requirement, there are also international carriers that continue to require face masks and some of them will technically not allow cloth masks. Passengers on these flights are required to wear surgical masks or FFP1, FFP2, or FFP3 face masks (the higher the number, the higher the quality), which are the European equivalent of N95 quality masks (N95s pass muster too). Make sure you are up to date on the last masking requirement for the domestic or internatinoal carrier you are flying with.
The most protective types of face masks
Of course, wearing a face mask isn’t just about complying with the rules—it’s also about providing you and your fellow passengers with the most protection. In this regard, N95s are still regarded as the best type of face mask to wear on flights by health experts.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the CDC states in its latest mask guidance. (NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)
While KN95 and N95 masks (or respirators as they are sometimes called) can offer a similar level of protection, N95s are considered a notch above because of the NIOSH approval that ensures they are well manufactured. The CDC reported that about 60 percent of KN95 respirators evaluated by NIOSH during the pandemic were of subpar quality, so it is important to research and buy quality KN95s, typically made overseas, from reputable vendors.
Though N95 masks have become the gold standard for protection, there is one drawback to them—they aren’t washable, which means they are less reusable than cloth masks. Per the CDC, “data suggest limiting the number of reuses to no more than five total uses (five total donnings)” for respirators. Ultimately what matters is that the fit remains close to the face and that the condition of the mask remains sufficient to provide adequate protection. Once either of those falls by the wayside it is probably time to swap out for a new mask.
Best face masks to buy for travel
Regardless of which (approved) mask type you wear, it’s important to ensure it creates a tight seal against your face with no gaps and is comfortable enough to wear for the duration of your flight. These are some of the best face masks available for flights, as well as other forms of travel:
WellBefore N95 Medical Respirator Mask
Buy now: from $16 for a 10-pack (with a subscription), wellbefore.com
Available in both flat-fold and cup style designs with over-the-head straps, these N95 face masks from the medical supplier WellBefore are NIOSH approved. Sold in packs of 10, you can get these masks for as little as $1.59 each if you set up a subscription that you can cancel at any time.
Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator
Buy now: from $46 for a 50-pack, amazon.com
Yes, these “duck-bill” shaped masks may look a little comical, but if you’re snoozing away on an hours-long flight, style isn’t exactly a top priority. Where these NIOSH-approved respirators excel is comfort and breathability, thanks to adjustable around-the-head straps and a large breathing chamber—just what you want on that long haul to Australia.
Powecom KN95 face masks
Buy now: from $12 for a 10-pack, bonafidemasks.com
Found to have a 98.8 percent filtration efficiency by the CDC, the Powecom KN95 face masks are a solid, straightforward option for face masks. One of the unique features, though, is that each set of masks can be run through an anti-fake checker—simply enter the serial number in the online portal at powecom.com—so customers can be certain they received a legit (and effective) Powecom mask.
Evolvetogether KN95 face masks
Buy now: $15 for a five-pack, evolvetogether.com
If you’re looking for a more stylish alternative to the basic white or black KN95s, Evolvetogether makes them in several different colors with a sleek flat profile. These masks feature soft ear loops, an adjustable nose bridge for a secure fit, and six layers, including a water-resistant outer layer, two melt blown center layers, an activated charcoal layer, and two water absorbent inner layers. In addition to the green seen here, these masks also come in navy, khaki, gray, and hot pink. If you’re looking for surgical masks, Evolvetogether also still makes those for adults and kids too.
Maskc KN95 face masks
Buy now: from $36 for a 10-pack, shopmaskc.com
Worn by the likes of Rihanna and JLo, Maskc makes KN95s and three-ply surgical masks in a rainbow of colors as well as a variety of patterns, including plaid and pastel florals. The brand’s KN95s are made with a five-ply design and an adjustable nose bridge for a snug but comfortable fit.
Kaze Original KN95 face masks
Buy now: from $40 for a 10-pack, kazeorigins-us.com
Although these are some of the priciest KN95s we’ve seen, the bright candy colors and marbleized patterns are great for when you want to make a statement or match your PPE to an outfit for a special occasion. These aren’t just about form over function, either. Kaze Original KN95 masks are made with a five-ply design and come with an adjustable nose bridge—and ear straps—for a comfortably custom fit.
Jessie Beck and Lyndsey Matthews contributed reporting to this article.
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