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Are linen face masks effective? We asked an expert

Linen masks are trendy right now, but they may not be so safe.

Are linen masks effective? Credit: Getty Images

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By now you likely own at least one face mask. But if you've ever tried to work out in a face mask or had to wear one for hours on end, you know that not all are created equal in terms of comfort and breathability. And with summer approaching and temperatures rising, that cozy face covering that kept your face warm in the winter might start to feel suffocating and sweaty.

I’ve spent most of my career working at apparel and textile companies evaluating and testing materials for use in clothing and home products. When I heard linen masks were trending for warmer weather, I suspected that certain characteristics about the breezy fabric and how it’s made may not make for the most effective face mask. I reached out to an infectious disease expert to find out whether or not linen is a good face mask material. Here's what I learned.

What makes a good face mask?

Face mask
Credit: Getty Images

A face mask should fit snugly around your face.

Since face masks first came to market in 2020 as a way to prevent against the spread of COVID-19, I’ve spent months testing, researching, and then testing some more to find the best ones. The Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) has an entire guide to face masks, listing out everything from how to choose the right mask to how to clean it. According to the CDC, there are three key characteristics that make an effective face mask:

  • Completely covers the nose and mouth
  • Fits snugly against the sides of the face and does not have any gaps
  • Made with multiple layers of tightly woven fabric

Do linen face masks protect against COVID-19?

Linen may sound like it’s an excellent fabric for a summer face mask—a natural fiber made from the flax plant, it’s breathable, light, and airy. It also absorbs moisture and dries quickly. However, because linen is loosely knit, the space between each individual yarn is larger than a tightly woven fabric. (That's why linen pants and sheets are often slightly see-through.)

This loose construction makes linen less than ideal for face masks as droplets or aerosols can more easily pass through. "The tighter the weave of the fabric, the more efficient the mask is going to be in preventing droplets from being spread into the environment or inhaling them," Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explains. "Using a more loosely constructed fabric, such as linen, would make the mask less effective."

Dr. Kuritzkes' explanation aligns with guidance from the CDC that masks should not be made from "fabric that is loosely woven or knitted, such as fabrics that let light pass through." Most linen isn't going to pass that test. If you’re unsure whether or not your mask is effective, the CDC suggests holding the mask up to a bright light source to make sure it blocks the light from coming through.

The other downside to a linen face mask is that linen tends to wrinkle very easily and may become distorted after washing. This could affect the fit around the perimeter of the mask and cause gaping. "A tight fit around the edge of the mask helps prevent aerosols from getting in," says Dr. Kuritzkes, who advises tying knots in elastic fasteners or double masking to reduce gaps and provide more protection.

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What's the best face mask?

athleta face mask
Credit: Jamie Ueda and Athleta

The Athleta mask is my favorite.

If you’re looking for a mask that is breathable and protective, we recommend the Athleta Non Medical Everyday Face Mask. We tested 18 of the most popular face masks and found the Athleta masks to be the best. They're fit snugly around your face, are easy to breathe in, and have a triple-layer construction for maximum protection.

I have been wearing the Athleta masks for the last year and they remain my favorite for every activity from running errands to working out. Several other Reviewed staff members agree, saying the Athleta masks are their go-to face covering.

Moral of the story? Linen might look and feel good, but if you want adequate protection, you should pass on the trend.

Get the Non Medical Masks (5-Pack) from Athleta for $14.99

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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