Love Your Lungs: Masks

By Benjamin Bombard

You may travel by mass transport, bike or on foot. You may have solar panels on your home and the highest-rated water heater. Your life may even be 100% carbon neutral. Too bad: You’ll still have to endure toxic levels of particulate pollution during the Wasatch Front’s wintertime inversions.

And when the air does get bad, through no fault of your own, you’ll likely still need to walk the dog or ride your bike to work, in which cases you should wear a respirator mask. But which one?

During the winter months, the pollutant of principal concern in Utah is PM2.5. A composite of chemical particles wafting in the air, PM2.5s are small—2.5 microns, almost 30 times smaller than a human hair—and they can’t be scrubbed by your body’s filtration defenses, so they end up accumulating in your upper respiratory tract. That means you need a mask that can filter out these minute toxins, some of which are proven carcinogens.

Respirator masks are rated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and masks given an “N” rating of 95, 99 or 100 provide ample protection from PM2.5s. If a mask is rated N95, it filters out 95% of particulate matter larger than .3 microns, which is, of course, much smaller than 2.5 microns. NIOSH ratings are readily visible on respirator masks and their packaging.

The multinational conglomerate corporation 3M makes a line of N95 masks that can be found at most hardware stores. They’re easy to use, cheap and easily available. Masks with small valves on the front are easier to breathe through and reduce condensation buildup. The masks are made to be disposable, but they can be reused as long as they are clean and undamaged. $10-50/10-pack.

Larger half-facepiece masks can provide N100 protection and they look bad ass, but they’re expensive and condensation quickly becomes a problem if you wear them while walking or riding a bike.

Consider the stylish N99 masks produced by San Francisco-based Vogmask. Their comfortably fitting, washable masks have a purported three-year life, feature a functional breathing valve and come in small, medium and large and in various designs. According to one report, Vogmask products are manufactured at the same South Korean factory that produces 3M masks, and they provide test results of their masks on their website. At N99, these masks should provide more than ample protection from PM2.5s along the Wasatch. $27-35 online

Iconoclad, a downtown clothing store, carries masks they’ve had manufactured directly. We‘ve not test-driven them yet, but owner and longtime clean air activist Tom Sobieski says they do capture PM2.5s. $17.50-20.

Active Salt Lake City winter cyclist Jim French swears by the Respro masks. He has found them to be the best for heavy exercise. Many appropriate models are available, depending on your needs. His choices: Cinqro and Techno Black. See

On January 28 at the Utah Clean Air Fair we met the makers of JaMo Threads, which manufactures their PM2.5-guarding gaiter masks right here in Salt Lake City! Find them at Wasatch Touring. $22-24.

Whichever mask you choose, it must fit snuggly, with no gaps between your face and the mask lining. (Bearded men: good luck.) Breathing any quantity of unfiltered air defeats the purpose of wearing a mask.

If you exercise outdoors, wear a mask. Only you can protect your own lungs.

View the full “Love Your Lungs” article here.

This article was originally published on February 7, 2017.