Do Face Masks Really Help Against Pollution?

Do Face Masks Really Help Against Pollution?

While they’re a common sight in the city, especially in Asian metropolitans, new research has found that face masks used to filter pollution particles aren’t as effective as we think.

Conducted by an international team of researchers from Heriot-Watt and the Institute of Occupational Medicine in the U.K., their study tested a selection of masks in Beijing, and how they combat pollution.

The team tested nine types of filer masks, which all claimed they’d protect wearers from fine particle pollution, which is the product of vehicle exhausts, fuel combustion, and power plants. The tiny particles measure 2.5 micrometers or smaller, which, when inhaled, are small enough to be deposited in the lungs. By comparison, a human hair is between 50 and 70 micrometers thick.


After various types of tests, the results showed the masks varied in their effectiveness. Depending on the material used for the mask, the average particle and carbon penetration ranged widely from 0.26 per cent to 29 per cent.

While the participants performed active tasks with the masks on – inciting heavier breathing – the average leakage rose to between seven percent to 66 percent.

“Only one mask had an average leakage below 10 per cent on both active and sedentary tests,” says lead researcher John Professor Cherrie.

Related: How Kids are Being Exposed to High Pollution Levels at School

And though retail masks must be certified to meet local or international standards, these results suggest otherwise: the masks in today’s market may not provide the protection buyers believe they’re paying for.

“If it’s important for you to protect yourself or your family with masks, choose the best one you can and look for one marketed to workplaces. Don’t opt for the cheapest option, choose the one that’s most likely to do the best job,” adds Professor Cherrie.

The rest of the study results can be found online in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Photo Credit: Tom Wang/; Fotos593/

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