The idea of using an allergy filter face mask to prevent the uptake of triggers and therefore breathe only purified air is an appealing one — but which one to choose?
Lots of masks filter particulates only — such as anti-pollution masks which cyclists and city commuters might wear, or the similar allergy masks which those with hay fever may use to reduce pollen exposure.
But if you have a sensitivity to fragrances or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as the isothiazolinones or the aldehydes, and want to have any real chance of protecting against possible exposure when in situations or locations which are difficult to avoid, you need something more than just a particle filter.
You need charcoal or carbon enhanced masks. Here are some of those on the market.
Respro(R) Allergy Mask
Respro make a huge selection of masks for various scenarios and purposes — city living, cycling — but it’s their Allergy Mask that’s probably most appropriate for those with sensitivities. Some Respro masks — Cinqro, City, Techno, Metro — include what the brand call a Dynamic Activated Charcoal Cloth (DACC) filter as standard, but the Allergy Mask only includes an allergy particle filter as standard, so you need to order the all-important DACC separately if you go for this option. Thankfully, through their UK store they sell a Combo Kit Allergy — i.e. the Allergy Mask plus two chemical / particle filters.
Unusually, Respro publish a long list of compounds which the DACC absorbs to varying degrees, and this includes many of the components of fragrances and common allergens such as formaldehyde. The isothiazolinone preservatives are not among them, though they point out the list is not exhaustive. I enquired, and they responded that they had not tested MI or its relatives on their DACC material but “in all probability owing to its molecular makeup it will be adsorbed if present in an airborne environment. Methylisothiazolinone is a hydrocarbon and DACC is very good for the adsorption of hydrocarbons.”
They offer worldwide shipping, but you can also browse many of their masks and filters through Amazon in the US and elsewhere.
I Can Breathe Masks
A small selection of masks.
Offer the Honeycomb Pollution Mask with Coconut Activated Carbon Filter, and the Honeycomb Pollution Mask with Coconut Activated Carbon Sports Filter — the second option being better for cycling and exercise where greater input and output of air requires valves.
Replacement filters are available for both. You should replace when breathing becomes difficult.
There’s also the Organic Cotton Bamboo Carbon Breathing Mask, which is washable. This is better from an environmental perspective, and may be suitable for out-and-about in the city, but because the coconut activated charcoal used in the Honeycomb masks contains smaller micropores, whereas bamboo has larger ‘macro’ pores, theoretically, the Honeycomb masks should be better at trapping small-molecular compounds such as hydrocarbons, including the isothiazolinones.
The company has not yet responded to our enquiry.
Although they offer a ‘basic’ mask, the Cambridge Mask Pro is the one to go for, and is Cambridge Masks’ key product, which comes in various designs, and has three layers, carefully described on its home page.
The primary layer filters large particles, the secondary layer smaller particulates, and the third layer is military grade carbon filter, which has extremely powerful adsorption capabilities for chemicals, pollutant gases, and indeed viruses and bacteria, thanks to a silver lining.
There are toddler, child and three adult sizes. Although the filter is washable, the filter is not replaceable, so once breathing becomes difficult, you need to replace the entire mask — which means at least you can enjoy a different design each time.
Cambridge Masks have not yet responded to our enquiry regarding the capability of their filters in adsorbing isothiazolinones.
Browse via Amazon sites worldwide.
This San Franciscan company provide two types of mask of note — the one-valve microfibre mask, and the two-valve organic mask. Both have particle and carbon filter layers — the carbon layer is coconut-ash.
Which might be better? The one-valve may be slightly more comfortable, according to the manufacturers, but “If you are sensitive or allergic to synthetic textiles, the organic cotton masks will be more agreeable to wear.”
Like the Cambridge, the carbon filter can’t be replaced, so the mask needs to be changed when it’s done. Again, lots of attractive designs to choose from, but we are uncertain regarding MI / MCI as our enquiry has not yet been answered.
NB. Their no-valve masks don’t have a carbon filter, so avoid this product if you’ve looking for VOC protection.
- Change masks / replace filters / wash, if applicable, as per the guidelines and instructions given, which you should read carefully.
- Buy the right size — make your selection carefully and call the helplines for advice if you need them, as the correct size will not only feel more comfortable, but work more effectively. Remember to buy replacement filters in the appropriate size too.
- Don’t be attracted by cheap masks — they’re unlikely to work as well for what you need them for. Avoid cheap ‘bulk buy’ masks, and be prepared to pay in the order of the prices of the masks mentioned above. Consider it an investment in your health.
- Consider what you need protection from. Most masks will filter particulates (dander, pollens etc) to a roughly equivalent standard, but carbon filters are required to have any meaningful effect on fragrance / hydrocarbons and chemical allergens.
- Consider your level of activity too and how you’ll be using the mask, especially if for multiple purposes / situations. If you want a mask to use for cycling, for example, you’ll benefit from exhalation valves, which are required when you’re breathing heavily.
- Don’t worry too much about the percentage effectiveness of masks in doing the job: many brands quote figures in the region of 99%, and when you get to this level, there is very little difference between masks’ performance to worry about, at least when you’re first exploring the world of protective masks.
- Most masks will help a little with all allergies — even particulate-only masks may help some, as reduced pollen load may ease pressure on the immune system — but remember that there are no guarantees with your particular selection of sensitivities that any mask which completely relieve symptoms or offer total protection.
- Of the brands above, only Respro have responded to our query regarding methylisothiazolinone and related chemical, and they are not 100% of its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the situation is, for these particular chemicals, that they seem rather untested. We will update if and when responses are received.
- Don’t deliberately expose yourself to your allergens while wearing your mask and assume everything else will be fine. Always take maximum precautions — eg cover your exposed skin as much as you can, open windows etc — and understand that masks are a tool not a solution, necessarily.