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Can I buy anti-pollution masks in China? Do they work?

The 3M 9332 mask, Dr Saint Cyr’s personal pick; photo from 3M

Air pollution is an undeniable problem for many in China, and so many people buy air purifiers for their homes and offices. But when you’re out and about only a pollution mask will help protect you from poor quality air.

Thankfully, air filtering masks have become more and more readily available in China since the mid-2010s, and even convenience stores such as 7-Eleven are selling the items. But which of them works best, and do you have to spend a fortune to get the protection you need?

Those are the questions that Beijing-based doctor Richard Saint Cyr asked when writing an article on the topic for his blog. Dr Saint Cyr conducted a sophisticated series of tests on nine popular brands of masks available China using a professional testing lab, and reported back on the results.


The tests

Nine masks were tested: Vogmask, I Can Breathe, Respro, Totobobo, Lvdun (绿盾), three 3M models (9332, 9501 and 9001V) and a surgical mask from Dr Saint Cyr’s office. These masks were tested on their ability to block particulate matter larger than 0.3 microns (aka PM0.3), which is considerably smaller than the PM2.5 particles that concern so many people in China.

The tests involved the test subject wearing each mask while undergoing a series of everyday movements and positions such as turning their head and talking. The aim was for each mask to meet a FitFactor of 10 (which would indicate 90 percent efficiency), though a FitFactor of 100 would count as a “super success”, with an efficiency of 99 percent. 


The conclusions

Among the masks tested, the 3M 9332, with a retail price at 38 yuan, topped the list with a FitFactor (FF) of 250, indicating the ability to filter 99.6 percent of the harmful particles in the air. It is available to buy in packs of 10 from amazon.cn.

The other three masks with filtering efficiency of over 90 percent were the 3M 9501 at FF 40/97 percent efficiency; Vogmask with FF21/95 percent efficiency, and the 3M 9001V at FF 13/92 percent efficiency. Dr Saint Cyr concluded that he would use the 3M 9501, with a retail price of only 6 yuan at convenience stores, as his everyday choice and save the 3M 9332 for severely polluted days.

Sadly, the reusable anti-pollution mask Lvdun – one of China’s best-selling models at the time – reached a dismal rating of FF 2.3/57 percent efficiency despite costing up to 32 yuan. That’s even worse than the 1 yuan disposable surgical mask, which achieved an FF of 2.7/63 percent filtering efficiency.


The importance of a good fit

Throughout his findings, Dr Saint Cyr emphasized that the most important factor to bear in mind is how well a mask fits the user’s face; if there is air leaking in from the edges, the mask will not give you proper protection against the pollution. As a result, his tests can only say what works best for him – other users may find that other masks give better results as they better fit the user’s face shape. 

He also adds that users should not only choose a mask that perfectly fits their face shape, but should also perform a quick test to make sure the seal around the edge of the mask is tight: When putting it on, breathe in sharply. If the mask sucks in or collapses in somewhat, the seal is tight. If not, air is probably getting in around the edges.

You can read more about Dr Saint Cyr’s mask tests and conclusions at this article on his blog.


Useful Chinese words and phrases 

口罩 kǒu zhào Mask
防污染 fáng wūrǎn Anti-pollution
有效率 yǒuxiào lǜ Efficiency
呼吸系统的 hūxī xìtǒng de Respiratory
有害颗粒 yǒuhài kēlì Harmful particles
手术口罩 shǒushù kǒuzhào Surgical mask



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