No matter who you are and what you tend to shop for, you just about can’t click a link these days without seeing an ad for cloth face masks. Quite often, the masks look like the one in the picture above — cloth material, a plastic exhale port, and ear loops with sizers on them. We found out the hard way that these masks aren’t worth the money.
The bottom line: Don’t click “buy” on any old mask, no matter how desperate you are for a reusable mask. It may not ship, and if it does, it will probably fall apart when you use it.
Then, check out our review of the best respirators to find out what we recommend.
Arrived slow, broke fast
Back in mid-May, I clicked a Google ad and bought some reusable cloth masks from the website VaultandCo.com. These particular masks have a pocket inside where you can place a small PM2.5 filter insert. So despite the fact that they’re not full N95s, with an included filter installed I figured they should still work pretty well.
The website claimed to have the masks in-stock and ready to ship, so despite all the red flags—and without doing a lick of due diligence—I forked over $75 of my favorite money for three masks and some extra PM2.5 filters.
I knew better than to do this, but I was kind of desperate, and it was late at night, and I was surfing the web, and the credit card was nearby… Reader, you know how it is.
The fact that the masks were listed as “in stock” put me over the top, because at the time masks were out of stock everywhere I looked.
Vault sells these masks for $17.99 each, and pretty quickly after hitting “buy” I learned that identical looking masks are for sale all over AliExpress for less than half that price. So at that point, I was fairly certain that I had gotten ripped off, but I wasn’t too bitter because I really needed the masks and — to my surprise and delight — I got a quick notice that my order was ready to ship, complete with a tracking number.
“So what if I overpaid,” I told myself. “At least I’ll have the masks in-hand soon.”
But the masks didn’t arrive for over three more weeks. And when they did, they promptly fell apart with just a little bit of use.
The masks fit awkwardly and loosely, and in general it was pretty easy to tell that this is just not a quality product. It’s cheaply made, and at this point I don’t even trust that the PM2.5 filters I got aren’t just some random junk material that doesn’t even work.
Even the little adjustment tubes on the ear loops don’t stay on. My kids lost them pretty quickly during the first wear, at which point the masks wouldn’t stay on their little heads and were worthless for them.
So this whole late-night impulse buy was simply a bust, from top to bottom. I’m pretty bitter about this, because I could have bought two Dominion expansions for the amount I blew on this product.
More: You can use an old prom dress to make a mask that works like an N95
All is not lost
Despite the junktastic nature of these masks, I’m thinking with a bit of sewing I can improve on the strap situation and make them into some worthwhile backup preps. I’m going to try to replace the straps with some sewn-on elastic bands, possibly using Velcro as a fastener.
In fact, if you can score some of these masks for super cheap and are willing to do a bit of work, then I think with strap replacements they could actually be a decent deal. But to make the case that these masks are worth salvaging, I have to address the issue of that exhalation port.
Savvy mask shoppers who’ve read our respirator guide may be scratching their heads at my plans to repair and salvage these, because the presence of an exhale port on them disqualifies them from use as COVID-19 protection.
(In short, a mask should protect the wearer from breathing in the virus, and it should protect others from whatever the wearer is exhaling. But if there’s an exhale valve, then the mask doesn’t offer two-way protection and isn’t considered safe for public use.)
The good news about these masks is that the little plastic exhale port is mostly decorative. Inside that plastic part there is a little rubber valve that opens a bit to let breath out, but there’s also material behind the plastic part that filters just like the mask itself. Furthermore, any inserted PM2.5 filter also sits in between the back of the port and the wearer’s face holes — so despite the port, you get the exact same kind of two-way filtration you’d get if it wasn’t even there.
In effect, these masks are saved by their own crappiness. If they were nicer, then there would be a legit one-way valve in there for letting air out directly. But they aren’t, so there isn’t. And that means they work for protecting others from whatever you may be carrying and exhaling.
So if you can score some of these masks on the cheap and then hack them to make them stay on your face, you could end up with a passable, inexpensive face covering option.
One warning, though: I have not yet tried to wash these, so I have no idea if they’ll just completely fall apart in the washing machine. If I do end up using them, my plan is to just leave them in my car for a few days so that time and the Texas heat bakes any contamination off of them.
More: Baking your N95 in the oven to decontaminate: don’t do it, but if you do then here’s how
As an alternative, consider the new masks from GORUCK, which I tested this weekend and which are not only cheaper but superior in every respect. (Disclosure: GORUCK sent me a three-pack for review, so look for more details on them soon. I’m pleased enough with these masks that I’ve now ordered two more three-packs for family members with my own personal money.)
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