How to Choose a Face Mask

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The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommends wearing face masks with at least 3 layers: 2 of which should be tightly woven fabric such as cotton or linen which research has found to be effective against droplets with a filter-type fabric layer between them such as non-woven polypropylene which is used in both medical and N95 masks. Studies have shown that 3 layers are better than 2.


What to consider when looking for a face mask

Filter pocket or built-in filter

A filter provides an additional layer of protection that can trap microscopic airborne liquid particles known as aerosols as well as the larger respiratory droplets that can also be caught by the 2 standard woven layers.

Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets which fall to the ground quickly, but that the smaller aerosols may linger in the air under some circumstances which can result in transmission – particularly in buildings with poor ventilation. Masks filters are especially important as we spend more time indoors during the winter months.

They can be made of:

  • Non-woven polypropylene fabric in the form of:
    • Mask filters from Ellie Mae or Canada Strong
    • Craft fabric
    • Reusable shopping bag (not the ones with shiny plastic coating)
  • Disposable filters
  • Folded paper towel
  • Dried out baby wipe
Non-woven polypropylene close-up

Plastic films, coffee filters are not good filter material as they may restrict your ability to breathe. Disposable filters should be replaced daily.

You don’t need to get rid of your 2-layer masks. They still provide some protection and most existing can be converted into 3-layers by by ripping out the seams and placing a filter material inside.


Masks should also be large enough to cover your nose, mouth and chin without gaping and be securely fastened to your head with ear loops or ties.

Masks that fit well limit the amount of respiratory droplets that escape out of the top and sides and can help prevent the spread of your droplets to others. They may also help protect you from the respiratory droplets of others. Most of your breath should be going through the mask – not around it.

Masks should be comfortable enough to be worn for long periods without the need for frequent adjustments as touching the outside of the mask may increase the risk.

Some masks are secured by ear loops, while others use ties behind the head. Ones that tie can be fastened more snugly, but some people prefer the ear loops because they’ve got more give and are quicker to take on and off. In the end, it’s important to get one that you’ll be willing to wear.


The colder the weather gets, the more likely the warm air you exhale will fog up your glasses. To prevent this, look for a mask with an adjustable nose bridge. The metal wire along the top edge can be moulded to your nose and cheeks to prevent air from blowing upward onto your glasses. For homemade masks, you can add a pipe cleaner.

Using anti-fog wipes or putting a small amount of dish soap on your lenses and wiping it away with a paper towel or rinsing and letting them air dry will leave behind a film that helps prevent fog from building up. You can also try pulling up your mask and placing your glasses overtop to help press the mask to your face. If that still doesn’t work, try placing a small strip of medical tape along the top of the mask.

Surgical and N95 masks are better than cloth masks at preventing fog build up.


Your mask should hold its shape after washing and drying and be strong enough to withstand daily washes.

Stitching should be tight and consistent and not broken or missing.

While they can cost quite a bit more upfront, reusable face masks can be washed multiple times and help reduce waste.


Safety first, fashion second.

Once the practical criteria are met, you’re free to find the coolest, trendiest or most fashionable mask – one that best fits your look and personality, whether it’s designer, a pop culture reference or simply a colourful pattern. Masks cover a large portion of our face which hinders communication through facial expressions, but they can still be a form of self-expression.

How do I use a face mask properly?

The Canadian government has published a video on how to wear a non-medical mask properly.

Fitting and putting on a face mask

A mask should be large enough to cover your mouth and nose, but not so large that it blocks your vision or gets in the way of activities. The mask should also fit securely, and there shouldn’t be gaps or spaces between the mask and your skin, especially under your chin or around your mouth and nose. Some masks have a copper band or wire ribbon around the nose area to ensure a snug fit.

Here are the steps for putting on a mask properly:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds
  2. Check the mask for holes
  3. Place the mask over your mouth and nose
  4. Pull the loops behind your ears, or tie the strings behind your head
  5. Adjust the mask so it covers your mouth, nose, and chin
  6. Once the mask is on, try not to touch it

Cleaning a face mask

Current evidence suggests the virus can live on surfaces from a few hours to days. Reusable masks should be washed daily, as soon as they become damp, dirty or frozen, or after you wear it out and return home – especially if you were somewhere that physical distancing was difficult such as:

  • Grocery store
  • Public transportation
  • Doctor’s office
  • Workplace

Disposable filters should be replaced daily.

To remove the mask, don’t touch the mask itself. Instead, untie it or remove the ear loops and hold the mask by the ties or loops. If the mask has a disposable filter, remove it and throw it out before washing the mask.

Store soiled masks in a secure, waterproof bag or container until they can be washed. The easiest way to wash your mask is to throw it in the washing machine with your other laundry. Dry the mask in the dryer, or hang it to air dry.

To wash the mask by hand, you can use tap water and laundry detergent or soap. Rinse thoroughly with clean water to remove detergent or soap.

What are the alternatives to face masks?

Do mouth and face shields count?

Face shields do not replace masks or face coverings.

A face shield is used to protect the eyes of the person wearing it. Using a face shield without a mask won’t protect you from potentially inhaling droplets or aerosols that others have exhaled or protect others from those that you exhale as they can get around the face covering.

Do winter scarves, neck warmers or balaclavas count as face coverings?

In general, yes, they’re allowed to be used as face coverings under mask bylaws as they cover your nose and mouth. However, this is not the case everywhere as they do not often meet the requirements of being tightly fitted to the head and being made of a tightly woven material such as linen or cotton – so check your local guidelines.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s health ministry states that scarves and other face coverings may be less effective than non-medical masks. Quebec’s health ministry warns that droplets could pass through the openings in a loose scarf.

Toronto Public Health recommends wearing a face mask underneath if the covering doesn’t cover the mouth, nose or chin without gaps.

Neck gaiters (neck warmers)

Neck gaiters (also known as neck warmers) aren’t recommended because they:

  • aren’t well secured to the head or ears, and are likely to move or slip out of place
  • are difficult to remove without contaminating yourself

If a neck gaiter must be used as a face covering:

  • it should be folded to provide at least 3 layers of fabric and should include a filter or filter fabric added between layers
  • lift it away from your face, especially when taking it off
  • wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer anytime you need to adjust it, especially when putting it on and taking it off

Masks with exhalation valves

Masks with exhalation valves or vents are not recommended. These masks do not protect others or limit the spread of the virus. This is because they allow respiratory droplets to spread outside the mask.

Would a surgical mask be more effective?

Surgical masks are disposable, single-use, medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) made of polypropylene fabric. Like cloth masks, they cover the nose, mouth, and chin, but they don’t form a tight seal with your face.

These masks can be very effective — more so than non-medical cloth masks — at protecting the wearer from contaminated liquids, including spray, splashes, and larger respiratory droplets. They also protect others from the respiratory droplets of the wearer. However, they are not 100% effective.

Surgical masks may be in short supply, so they aren’t recommended for members of the general population. Instead, reserve them for healthcare workers, and cover your own face with a non-medical cloth mask.

Should I wear a respirator?

Respirators are the next step up in PPE. They are close-fitting, disposable face masks that protect the wearer from fluids and large respiratory droplets. Unlike surgical masks, however, respirators are made from tightly interlaced polypropylene fibres and form a seal with your face, so they’re much better at filtering pathogens and particulates.

Because respirators actually form a seal, they’re also more effective than surgical masks at preventing the spread of diseases. However, that also means they aren’t effective for people with facial hair or children, and you have to remove jewelry before wearing them.

Respirators also have to be fitted properly, because if they don’t form a proper seal, then they aren’t as effective. In medical settings, healthcare workers are fit-tested every year to make sure their masks are protecting them.

There are three types of respirators that are all designed to filter particles between 100 and 300 nanometres (0.1 to 0.3 microns) and they are:

  • N95, which filter 95% of particles
  • N99, which filter 99% of particles
  • N100, which filter 99.7% of particles

Respirators can make breathing harder, so they’re not recommended for people with medical conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

Respirators are a very important piece of PPE for healthcare workers, and because there’s a shortage of them right now, they should be reserved for healthcare workers.

Why have recommendations changed in Canada?

At the beginning of 2020, Canadians were told that it wasn’t necessary to wear a mask and that medical masks should be reserved for health care workers.

April 2020

It was discovered that infected individuals can transmit the virus when they’re asymptomatic, especially in the early stages of infection and could amount to between 40 and 80% of transmission. The Public Health Agency of Canada then updated their recommendations to that Canadians should wear non-medical face masks when out in public.

November 2020

The PHAC updated their stance to acknowledge that transmission also can occur via aerosols and therefore masks should include 3 layers instead of 2. The 3rd layer should be a filter-type fabric such as non-woven polypropylene. This is in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and what recent studies have shown.

How do face masks work?

The virus is spread through respiratory droplets. When an infected person exhales, coughs, sneezes, or even talks, they expel respiratory droplets that can be contaminated with the virus.

You can get sick when you come in contact with these droplets, by touching an infected surface, by coming into physical contact with an infected person, or by being too near an infected person who has coughed or sneezed.

Face masks help prevent the spread of the virus by preventing infected respiratory droplets from getting into the air or contaminating physical surfaces.

Will a face mask protect me?

The primary purpose of a wearing a mask is to prevent you from transmitting the virus to somebody else if you’re sick. They may also help protect you from the respiratory droplets of others. You wear a mask to protect other people, and other people wear masks to protect you.

For example, if you’re in the grocery store with somebody who’s sick and they’re wearing a mask, that will help stop them from giving you the virus. Therefore, the more people who wear masks, the more we’ll slow the spread.

Do I have to wear a mask?

Wearing a mask isn’t mandated federally, but it is recommended — in conjunction with social distancing measures and good hygiene — to help slow the spread of the virus. This applies to anybody over the age of 2 who doesn’t have breathing difficulties.

At the recommendation of public health officials, many municipalities across Canada have passed mandatory mask by-laws that require masks to be worn while inside indoor public places. These recommendations are typically based on rates of infection and/or transmission in the community

Check with your local government or public health authority on the requirements for your location. It doesn’t hurt to keep a spare mask in the car.

You can wear a mask any time you’re out of the house, but it’s especially important when you’re around other people in a crowded place and can’t always maintain the recommended 2 m distance between yourself and others. This includes when you are:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Picking up medications at the pharmacy
  • Using public transportation
  • Visiting retail stores
  • Picking up food from a restaurant  

When should I wear a mask?

You should wear a non-medical mask or face covering when:

  • you’re in public and you might come into close contact with others
  • you’re in shared indoor spaces with people from outside your immediate household
  • you have underlying medical conditions
  • when and where advised by your local public health authority

If you’re sick or someone at home is sick, you should also wear a mask at home when you’re around other people or around animals.

Masks should not be worn by kids under the age of 2. Between the ages of 2 and 5, depending on their ability to tolerate and take it off, they may be able to wear a mask while being supervised.

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About the author

Ashley Tonkens

Hi! I'm Ashley, and I'm a freelance writer living in Nelson, BC. When I'm not at my computer, I love to get out hiking, biking, swimming, and camping. My dog, Harriet, comes just about everywhere with me. Except swimming—she absolutely hates the water. I grew up in Ontario, but now live in an incredible small town in B.C. that’s rich with culture, full of cool people, and surrounded by trees, mountains, lakes, hot springs, glaciers, and adventures of all kinds. Ashley has a Master's Degree in Journalism and a Bachelor's Degree in English Language and Literature from Western University. LinkedIn Read more

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