Why the Best Face Mask Isn’t a Complicated Medical Mask But Solid Cotton

Who knew that by the end of 2020 we’d all be face mask experts? Yet for all we have learned, there are so many masks on the market now that it’s hard to know which is the best face mask. It might seem intuitive that a complicated medical mask must be the gold standard, but there are some good reasons to prefer simple but solid cotton instead.


The first reason that cotton is a preferred mask type is the ability to get a good fit. It’s very hard to get medical face masks to fit properly if you’re not used to working with them, and an improperly fitted mask is utterly useless. Remember: masks aren’t about you so much as they are about others.

The point is that you don’t know if you might be contagious–with many viral illnesses, we’re the most contagious in the days before we start showing actually symptoms–so you don’t want to share any of your germs with others. A mask you can adjust to fit your face well is much better than one with big gaps at the side or nose.


A recent study done by researchers at Duke University assessed 14 types of masks, from fitted N95 masks to simple bandannas and neck gaiters. Perhaps the most important news out of that test was the simple reality that any mask at all was better than no mask in terms of restricting the spread of germs from the person wearing it. However, some masks definitely outperformed the rest.

The researchers measured droplet counts for people as they spoke, each time wearing different types of masks. The top three performers in the study were fitted N95 masks, surgical masks (worn properly), and cotton masks. The difference between these three and all the rest was significant, with cotton masks keeping in all but <0.01 droplets.


In the study above, the fitted N95 masks and surgical masks marginally outperformed cotton masks, albeit by numbers so small as to be within the realm of statistical noise. But N95 masks are very difficult to source and expensive. Surgical masks, meanwhile, are harder to fit properly than cotton masks, cost a lot more over time because of their disposable nature, and are a blight on the environment.

In contrast, cotton masks have everything going for them. They are easy and inexpensive to source, endlessly reusable, and the best are machine-washable. A machine washable face mask is easy to keep clean and won’t ever end up in a landfill. And since they perform so well, there’s no reason to deal with all the downsides that come with medical masks.


The final reason to prefer a cotton mask over medical masks is simply the look. Whether you get the little blue surgical masks or a complicated fitted medical mask, there’s no denying how much they stand out. Cotton masks, in contrast, are simple and can even be color-coordinated to match an outfit. Or, if you prefer, your cotton mask can make a statement, reflect your values or a hobby, or help you blend in with a subtle, unobtrusive color like black, navy, or beige.

Cotton masks are the best choice out there. Their performance is almost indistinguishable from surgical masks, yet they are easier to source and fit, reusable, and more stylish. Give the environment a break and ditch those reusable masks!

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