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I felt like I needed a better mask. Not just felt like—had been told by a slew of experts as well as a federal agency that it was time for all Americans to wear a face covering that fits snugly. To wear two face coverings, even! My favorite cloth masks, which I purchased (and enthusiastically recommended) last July, were still cute after months and months of washing. They fit pretty well. But newly attuned to the idea that a mask should really, really block air, every time I put one on, I was suddenly keenly aware of the gaps at the top of mask, as I felt air blowing up through them past my eyeballs. I took this as a clear sign that my masks, which at the time had fit the parameters of basic health recommendations, could be better.
Sure, I could look for new, more rigorously tested masks—like fancy ones with removable filters. Or I could wade through the “Wild West” of N95s, which may or may not be exactly as described by sellers (though Wirecutter, my former employer, has managed to wrangle recommendations after months of work). But I still loved the cloth masks—they had gotten me through so much. Instead of tossing them altogether, I went on a little mission to try to make them better.
Double masking, which hit the public consciousness after the Buttigiegs were spotted doing it at the inauguration—and had garnered the most headlines of all the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s new masking suggestions—seemed like a good place to start. I blindly ordered a box of disposable masks, since the recommendation is to put a layer that filters beneath the cloth layer (and hoped the masks I’d chosen would legitimately filter).
As soon as I layered my masks, though, it was clear that this setup was not going to work for me, at least not with my current stash of cloth masks. So many layers created a thick blanket; it felt like my breath leaked out through the sides, rather than through the filter. I’d suspected this might happen—the point of double masking is to have a layer that filters well beneath a layer that fits well and can pin everything down. In order to do that, you need a cloth mask that already fits snugly. It can be slightly easier to achieve this if your mask has ties rather than ear loops. “The people in the know tie it around [their] heads,” one researcher told me for my guide on why and how to double mask.
Since I don’t own a cloth mask with ties, I decided to try to fake them with a mask extender.
An extender’s plastic straps secure mask loops behind the head and seemed like it might make my nontying masks fit more tightly. While it took a little adjusting to fit the strap around my ponytail, once secure, it felt pretty comfortable. The plastic strap made one mask fit a little better than the mask does otherwise, and while it improved my double masking setup, it still wasn’t snug enough to make it as secure as I would like. Still, it was a painless upgrade, if a relatively small one—and could be particularly useful for giving your ears some relief if you are managing an increasingly complicated tangle of mask loops and glasses.
Still unhappy with the gaps at the top of my mask, I decided to turn to a different small improvement that I’d been wanting to try for a while: nose bridge strips. The new CDC guidelines suggest wearing a mask with a nose bridge. These were dead simple to stick on the inside of my beloved and very simple cloth masks. Easy to mold over the nose, they successfully prevented my sunglasses from fogging—which is also a good test to see if the mask is preventing air (and therefore aerosols) from leaking out of the top. One warning: The strips do not stay on in the washing machine, so you’ll need to either hand-wash your mask, sew them on, or apply fresh ones after each wash (hey, still less waste than surgical masks). Unlike anything else I tried, they also just made the mask feel really nice to wear. They obviously do not solve the issue of filtering—but for low-risk situations, like walking outside or briefly ducking into a pharmacy, they make me feel more secure than I did before, without making me stick too much stuff on my face.
The nose bridge strips did not improve my cloth masks enough for me to feel comfortable with their level of protection in higher-risk situations, so I turned to mask fitters, another recommended strategy from the CDC. A mask fitter frames your mouth and pins the mask against your face, forming a seal and keeping air from leaking out. They can be tricky to find, so while I waited for mine to arrive, I decided to make one of the homemade versions available online.
I opted for a design created by engineers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Called the “Badger Seal” after the school’s mascot, the design uses materials that are easy to order: vinyl tubing, cord locks, rubber twist ties, and elastic string. The instructional videos were easy to follow; while I didn’t time myself, I’d estimate it took about 20 minutes total to snip all the various pieces of tubing and ties, and put them together. I appreciated that it did a good job of pinning the mask to my face, but part of the tubing kept slipping because I made a cut incorrectly, and the rubber twist tie wiring was uncomfortable against my face. Not the most viable solution, unless you are up for some tinkering. But my Badger Seal experience did make something clear: A mask that fits flush against your face is different from a mask that is really, well, sealed to your face. While it’s not comfortable—and it’s why wearing a properly fitted medical grade N95 will leave marks on your skin—a mask fitter enables the mask to truly filter the air through the mask instead of directing air around the mask, thereby making it more protective to those around you.
After I’d made my own brace, one I’d requested from a company called Fix the Mask arrived. (They were experiencing stock issues then, but as of this writing, they are available to ship within a couple days of purchase.) These are made of soft rubber. Mine wasn’t too much more comfortable than my homemade version, but it was an improvement. Because I did not make it myself, it wasn’t threatening to fall apart on me. While a mask fitter may be a good solution for those who prefer surgical masks—surgical masks already provide a good filter, and the fitter only enhances their efficacy—it did not work very well with my cloth masks. The pinned down fabric is just too thick. That said, even though it’s not supercomfortable and I would have a hard time wearing it out in public where I feel somewhat self-conscious, I’m keeping my mask fitter on hand. A friend and former colleague gave this fitter a positive review at GQ and assured me via text that he wears it all the time.
I’m lucky in that a lot of my risk reduction strategy can simply involve not going places indoors for more than a few minutes. But I still want to try to protect myself—and others—as well as I can when I do. This experiment underscored something I’ve felt continually since COVID-19 emerged: Given the resources we have, and our dwindling stamina, it is very hard—in any variety of pandemic situations—to find the perfect solution. While I didn’t land on a mask Holy Grail, I have a couple more imperfect little strategies. At the beginning of the pandemic, I couldn’t quite fathom wearing a mask on my face while out and about at all, so maybe I’ll get more used to these options. Stranger things have happened in the past year.