Where I grew up, the only time I wore a protective mask involved sanding in woodshop or particularly potent solvents used in home improvement projects. That’s not to say I never experienced days of heavy pollution such as we get in Beijing. There were a couple of times the air became so saturated with smoke from nearby forest fires that the sunsets looked blood red, and when Mt. Saint Helens erupted, I remember saving some of the ash that blanketed the driveway. Yet all of those instances in my life in Oregon probably didn’t add up to the most recent week-long saga of poor air quality that socked Beijing.
After five years of putting up with Beijing’s crummy air quality, I finally asked around and determined that most of my friends wore one of several brands of face masks. Rather than reinvent the wheel and test out every brand, I simply poled the relevant sample of friends (the ones who wear masks) and settled on testing two brands, the sporty RZ Mask (motto: Ride Hard, Breath Easy), and the more fashionably subdued Vogmask. Both are readily available around town and online, but I got ours from the Torana Clean Air Center where we also get our Blue Air Filters. Chris Buckley (owner) and his staff were great about answering questions and recommending masks for different age groups and activity levels. Essentially, everyone said for cycling, running, or cruising around town on a Monster Micro Scooter, such as mine, the RZ Mask is the way to go. And the Torana crew recommended the Vogmask for my wife and daughter. We didn’t even try masks on the twins (under 1.5 years) since they would keep taking them off. After several months of use, I can offer the following observations.
The good news about wearing any mask in the winter, especially the RZ, is that it helps keep your face warm. That’s a definite plus when doing outdoor activities in freezing temperatures. It also filters out the crappy air that would otherwise be entering my lungs. I can smell the difference the moment I put it on and start breathing in the filtered air. Also, as masks go, if I don a hoody and put on my shades, even I look fairly intimidating. I know, it is hard to imagine me looking intimidating.
Alas, that is where the nice things about wearing these masks ends. The unfortunate truth is that wearing a mask sucks. Sure, it keeps your face warm in winter, but I suspect come summer, that warm mask is going to become unbearably hot and soaked in sweat. Unless diligent about storing the mask, I found the Velcro strap tended to catch on the exterior and quickly marred the finish of the neoprene. The disposable liner, should you fail to shave regularly, will snag on any facial hair and soon become quite fuzzy and, frankly, annoying. Thankfully it came with a replacement in the package. The mask also had the unfortunate side effect of making my nose run and there is no easy way to blow your nose while wearing a mask. Should you think I’m some kind of freak, I had other friends describe the same symptom. All of this might be forgiven, but like any mask I’ve ever worn, it also caused my glasses to fog up. I know, I could get contacts, but I don’t want to loose my geek credibility in the process.
Savvy never really wore her mask since her commute to work is only a four-minute walk. So for testing the Vogmask, it really came down to my daughter, Reina. She didn’t mind the mask and assured me it is comfortable when she remembered to wear it. She tried one without the respirator and did not like that. She does like the version with a respirator and wears a blue mask with subtle ghosts on it to school. I don’t know if she actually wears it after she gets on the bus as the mask is always stuffed into her bag when she gets off the bus in the afternoon. She also informs me that many of the students at her school wear similar masks. I tried wearing one while riding my scooter, but it felt like I was going to inhale the mask itself and stuck with the RZ.
All in all, I think both brands do what they are advertised to do, filter the air and keep your face warm in the winter, but I’m not thrilled with wearing one. The real problem is living in a city where wearing a face mask on a regular basis is becoming the norm. In reality, wearing a mask to go outside defeats the purpose of going outside. Unless necessary, I think it is insane to choose to live in a place this polluted, especially with small children. I guess it is time for us to start looking for a new town. Maybe one where they wear bandanas like bandits. I bet I look real intimidating in one of those.
Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons