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Climate and Environment

The Air Is Brown — Should I Wear A Mask? We Tested 5 Out And Have Some Advice

A group of people wears surgical masks at the Hollywood Bowl
Concertgoers at the Hollywood Bowl wear face masks amid the smoke of the Sand Fire in 2016.
(Courtesy of Betsy Sullenger)
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It's tough to accessorize for an airpocalypse.

When wildfires turn blue skies into browned-out hellscapes, there's only one accessory that seems to fit for safety and style — a mask. With California facing a year-round fire season, particulate matter matters, and so does airborne debris. But how bad is bad? Are we at mask-level bad? Do you need to wear one if the air is brown where you are, but the fire is somewhere else?

At the time LAist spoke to air quality specialists, health officials, agencies, medical professionals and mask companies, the short, conditional, answer was no, but times have changed.

When the air quality is poor you should be limiting your time outside. ("In any area where you can see or smell smoke, everyone should avoid vigorous exertion and limit outdoor exposure," posts AQMD on its air quality index map). But if you must be outside in smoky conditions, AQMD recommends wearing a disposable respirator, such as the N-95 or P-100.

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We tested five different air pollution masks with Ed Avol, air pollution expert at USC's Keck School of Medicine. He gave us some insight on which ones worked, and which ones didn't.

Follow us down the dusty rabbit hole of face masks:

1. Handkerchief

A man holds a handkerchief to his mouth
(Sue Carpenter
LAist )

It's true, something is better than nothing. But in the case of this method, less is not more.

"It may get us to think about what we're breathing in terms of effectiveness. It doesn't really do much in terms of protection," Avol said.

Don't waste your time with this one.

A man tries on a surgical mask.
(Sue Carpenter

2. Surgical Mask

This mask seems to be the one people reach for most often.

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But Avol explains, it's a poor choice: "Because it doesn't conform to the shape of your face and make a good seal... air is just going to go around the corners. In terms of smoke, that's the way particles are going to get in."

Throw that surgical mask away! It's not helping at all.

3. The N95

A man tries on a surgical mask.
(Sue Carpenter

It's all in the name. Turns out the 95 in N95 is a rating on effectiveness. This half-domed mask filters 95 percent of certain sized particles.

It's a far better choice than the surgical mask or handkerchief because the metal piece at the top actually allows for the mask to mold to the shape of your face. That's how you stop harmful particles from getting in.

4. The N95 With Ventilation

A man tries on the N95 with ventilation.
(Sue Carpenter

This is a variation of the N95, but with a plastic vent in the front. Avol described it as "the next grade up."

"This has a non-rebreathing one-way valve," Avol said.

He explained that disposable masks tend to get very humid and very damp inside, but the exhalation valve in this N95 alleviates that issue.

Due to this nifty vent, this mask gets the "most effective disposable air pollution mask" award.

5. The P100, Multipurpose Respirator

This one is hardcore, as you can tell from the GIF. It's a lot more involved than the other masks.

"It has chemical cartridges screwed into either side of the face mask that protects against inhaling certain gases... This is no longer a sort of throwaway onetime use sort of thing — this is a rubberized cover. It has adjustable straps, a sure better fit," Avol said.

But as far as fire protection goes, this may not be the best choice. Avol opts for the N95: "I think the N95 might do almost as good a job for getting the dust irritation."

How Is The Air Right Now?

Enter your zip code on AQMD's map for the most current air quality index reading where you are.

Additional Resources

What questions do you have about the fires burning in Southern California?

Updated September 12, 2022 at 8:55 PM PDT
This article updates with refreshed links and updated (aka we've all now experienced masks) mask info.