Choosing an Air Pollution Mask for China

It’s not something we typically think about while preparing for a trip – what will the air quality be like? Destinations like the Faroe Islands are known for having superb air quality, but what about big cities in Asia?

While preparing for a recent trip to Qatar and China, I had a lot of questions about choosing an air pollution mask for China, especially since everyone kept warning me about how smoggy it can get in Beijing and Shanghai.

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Girl riding her bicycle on a freezing morning in Beijing

I decided to investigate it a little further, partly out of curiosity and partly because my father and I (we were traveling together) both suffer from allergies. I knew that popping a Zyrtec wasn’t going to cut it.

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My father wearing his pollution mask at the Drum Tower

This is my story with a few tips and photos from my trip for anyone trying to choose the best air pollution mask for China. You’ll also see my top two recommendations: Respro and Cambridge Mask.

Check out our recent article: 15 Things to Do in Beijing

First, I explored all the options available. Basically, there are a myriad of air pollution masks, but not all are created equal. Let’s get started with the three basic types.

Types of Air Pollution Masks

Surgical Masks

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There are different types of masks including terry cloth ones like the girl above is wearing

This is your basic surgical mask. As you might imagine, it’s exactly what a surgeon wears in the operating room to protect the patient from any contaminants from his/her saliva. It also protects the surgeon from inhaling or ingesting any fluids from the patient.

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Typical surgical mask

Pros: In terms of comfort, they are quite comfortable because they hardly weigh anything at all. They are typically made of cotton and are inexpensive (about 80 cents each). Great for mild days when allergens may be present, which is a very rare occurrence in China.

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Notice how this man’s pollution mask is not fitted to his face

Cons: These masks do not fit well against the face, even when you pinch the metal band at the bridge of the nose. They don’t create a seal to block out air pollutants and they have no filter, which is what contributes to their dismal filtering efficiency rating of 57 (A rating of 100% indicates a perfect seal where nothing can get in or out). When I was in China I saw hundreds of people wearing surgical masks and it made me sick to my stomach to think of the false sense of security they had. Then again, there were others with no mask at all, which is also pretty scary to think about when you consider the recent story of a Chinese artist whose air pollution vacuum video went viral. He literally made a brick (yes, a brick) from the pollutants he managed to collect by just walking around Beijing with an industrial vacuum.

Overall: Don’t do it. All you will be getting is a false sense of protection with a mask that you can’t adjust. 

Disposable Masks

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A group of tourists wearing 3M® masks

These are masks that you can wear a few times before tossing. They were developed with factory and construction workers in mind so they are meant to create a good seal around the face to stop any particles from entering the nose or mouth. A popular model is the 3M® 9332 with exhalation valve to remove moisture from the face (see below).

3m pollution mask davidsbeenhere

Pros: Price point is excellent. A single mask will run you about $5.50, depending wear you buy it. It also has an excellent filtering efficiency of over 90%.

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The 3M® masks have writing on the front and aren’t very attractive

Cons: If you want to look like you’re headed to a nuclear plant disaster or anthrax contaminated zone, then this is the mask for you! No, seriously they are not very attractive and have to be thrown away after 3-4 uses, or until they start getting grayish, indicating they are dirty. That’s because you can’t change the filter. Additionally, they aren’t going to stay put during exercise or outdoor activities like extensive sightseeing around Beijing.

Overall: This is a good mask if you don’t plan on spending too much time outdoors in a place where there is significant air pollution.

Reusable Masks

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My father wearing his Respro Cinqro mask with a special HEPA filter

Reusable masks are those that allow you to change out the filter, which means once you’ve got a keeper, it’s yours to keep. They typically come in a variety of prints and colors, and are perfect for frequent travelers like myself. Respro® is a brand of reusable pollution mask that has created more than 15 models, each designed for a specific lifestyle in mind, whether it’s playing sports in freezing temperatures, or reducing allergies in urban places.

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Here I am admiring the view of the Forbidden City one particularly smoggy afternoon

Pros: Brands like Respro® offer you choices so you’re not just stuck with a white clinical-looking mask (although they have those models too). These masks typically come in different sizes so you can find the perfect fit (this is the key!) Once you have it, you can just change out the filters and keep using the same mask. They are made out of fabric and are machine washable, which is nice if you want to freshen it up in the washing machine. They are also ideal for biking or playing sports (or sightseeing around Beijing trying to cram all the main sites in like my father and I).

Cons: Reusable pollution masks are the priciest of the three ($40 – $65) and filter refills are sold separately. For most models, filters must be replaced after 50-70 hours of use.

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Another awesome reusable mask that I highly recommend is Cambridge Mask™, which comes in 15 designs and 5 colors. There are three filters in the Cambridge Mask material: Primary Filter, Three ply-microparticulate layer and the military grade layer. The Cambridge Mask’s™ filtration system, incorporating particulate filtering layers and military grade carbon meets N99 standard of particulate filtration, providing nearly 100% protection from particulate pollution such as PM2.5 and PM0.3, plus protection from residual VOCs and other polluting gases, as well as bacteria and viruses.

Pros: Cambridge Mask makes sizes small enough for children, which is great if you’re traveling to China with kids in tow. Ideal for anyone traveling to or living in China, India or other countries with bad air pollution. Also great for allergy sufferers, asthmatics, or hobbyists who work where there are fumes or air particles.

Some of Cambridge Mask’s fashion friendly designs

Cons: The Cambridge Mask is the filter, so the length of time they are suitable for depends on how polluted the environment is when you use it. The mask needs to be replaced after extended use to ensure proper filtration.

Overall: Reusable masks cost more, but at least you can pick the “look” you want. The mask I used (Respro City Mask) has a charcoal filter that is ideal for “regular” days in China. By this, I mean days with an API of “Good” to “Unhealthy” (0-200 API). I wore it in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an and never once experienced an irritation or allergy attack. As a new dad, I am so glad that there’s Cambridge Mask that makes sizes small enough to fit kids’ faces.

Choosing an Air Pollution Mask for China

So, how do you choose the right mask?

It all depends on fit, which is why I went with the Respro for my trip to China. I liked how the neoprene fabric stretched over my face to create a good seal while still being comfortable, and that I could wear it with sunglasses without a problem. I also didn’t get any moisture buildup in the mask, which was one of my main concerns.

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View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Dangers of Air Pollution 

There are plenty of people who go mask-free in China, which, after learning about air pollutants, makes me cringe. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world’s top 20 cities with the worst air pollution are in China. The main source of all this pollution? Coal. China’s primary source of electricity comes from coal – about 6 million tons are burned daily. Add vehicle emissions and other sources and you’ve got a deadly smog cocktail made up of cancer-causing gases and particles.view

This is exactly why protecting your lungs is important and why I wanted to write about my experience choosing an air pollution mask for China.

Here are 5 amazing tours I recommend in Beijing:

Do you have any advice for choosing the best air pollution mask? Leave us a comment below!

46 thoughts on “Choosing an Air Pollution Mask for China”

    1. Giselle says:

      Just wanted to thank you for the research you conducted on the masks and for posting this. My husband goes to China for business every year and comes back very sick every time and with what seems to be some type of respiratory infection. He’s going for an entire month and I’m freaking out about his health so reading as much as possible on best ways to avoid getting sick. Your article has helped a lot regarding which masks are best, thank you! Anything other advise of things to bring along to remote places in China would be appreciated.

  1. John says:

    I live in Beijing for 11 months of the year and have been there for five years now. For the first time last year I wore a respro mask always when the pollution was above 200. And for the first time, no winter cold or cough. It’s critical to use a good mask – surgical masks are pointless – and Respro fits well and is effective, esp for a cyclist like myself. Fully agree with the writer!

    1. David says:

      Hi John, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I love that Respro has masks designed for all kinds of activities like cycling. Stay safe and breathe well 🙂

  2. Sean says:

    Ironic, I’ve been traveling a while, just found a video you put out on youtube (Montanita) 6 years ago and ended up on your site and on this article. I’m thinking of heading to China for 6+ months in April. From the research I did before seemed manageable cause I’ll be away from the most polluted cities most of the time, but after seeing your article and thinkin bout it more, even if it’s just for a couple weeks, I think I’ll be grabbing a mask fo sho! Thanks!

    1. David says:

      You definitely need a mask! Enjoy your trip!

  3. Lisa Mac says:

    Heading for a cruise in November from Hong Kong to Singapore with Vietnam and Thailand on the way. We added quick side trip to Beijing and X’ian In California a Santa Cruz firm makes Vog masks Guessing not the same filtration of your brand?
    Lisa

  4. Henry says:

    Hey David – nice post. How do you know when a respro filter needs to be replaced?

    1. David says:

      Hi Henry,

      I would say once every 40 hours of use. But if you think it needs to replaced before do it!

  5. David V says:

    FYI, the Chinese aren’t generally wearing surgical masks to filter pollution. Like many other Asian countries, when you have a cold you politely wear a surgical mask to reduce the chance of passing it on.
    You see people wearing surgical masks all the time, even on the clearest days. Don’t fret, they’re not under the illusion that they’re protecting themselves from pollution. They’re not that stupid. Most convenience stores sell pm2.5 masks. They know the right one to wear for pollution, but to be honest, most average Chinese don’t care enough. Even on the 600+ days in Beijing recently, my mate (Spanish) was wearing his mask inside, while Chinese coworkers opened windows for ventilation.
    I personally stay inside if the pm2.5 levels rise above 180. I’m probably going to buy a good mask just because I like to do stair running up my building’s 30-floor fire escape. Residents use it to smoke in, so the pollution in there is often worse than outside.

    1. Xie xie ni says:

      Yeah, right. My coworkers before didn’t care and not wearing mask even it was around 600+. But of course if too hazardous they cared to cancel work duties and in schools as well. I myself didn’t get sick though and I seldom wore a mask and my roommate never wore… we bought an air purifier to breathe well inside the apartment. Hahaha!

      1. Xie xie ni says:

        But for me, sometimes when I feel sick during the pollution— ginger tea, vitamin c, and water help so much aside from the mask…

      2. David says:

        The air purifier is a great idea!

  6. katemn says:

    QUESTION:
    Would this mask be too warm in a climate such as Egypt where we will be traveling? Thanks for your help!

    1. David says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for stopping by! My best advice would be to go to the Respro website and read about the different types of masks. I honestly don’t think it will be too hot to use the lighter ones because the material isn’t heavy. Enjoy your trip!

  7. Mark Bursian says:

    Hi, Dave. Nice post. I’ve been in China for nearly 10 years now, and the entire time has been in Handan… located at the southern end of Hebei Province. Today’s AQI for Handan is 950. Our fair city always ranks among China’s Top 10 Worst Polluted Cities… a distinction that Beijing rarely achieves, but Beijing is the national capital afterall. For years I’ve been wearing the cloth masks, but really wonder about the effectiveness. And the 3M N95 particle masks with respirator seems good, but it’s more designed for Pm 3.0, not Pm 2.5. I remember from last year when it was discovered that most of the 3M N95 disposable masks sold in China were counterfeit… NOT 3M products at all and the quality was definitely NOT NIOSH N95. Air pollution is a serious problem here in China, and particularly here in Handan. Three weeks ago I suffered a mild heart attack and was recently released from the hospital… I’m 62 and considered that a serious warning about the air quality. My wife and I are planning on leaving Handan as soon as we can.

    1. Neil says:

      Can you please explain your statement of “designed for Pm 3.0, not Pm 2.5”? It’s my understanding that NIOSH N95 standard means that filtration occurs to approx. 95% of particulates down to 0.3 micrometers. PM2.5 particles are 2.5 micrometers, a full order of magnitude larger than the filtration of the N95 masks, so should have no issues with being filtered out.

  8. Diane says:

    Thanks for your article. We are going to China/Beijing in April.
    I have been searching for info on air quality and proper masks for tourists.
    We will be there for 9 days and don’t want to go home sick.
    Thanks again. Very helpful. I am heading to the Respro website.

    1. David says:

      No problem Diane! I suggest you get that ResPro mask before heading to China. Its worth it!

  9. Jaime Torres says:

    Hello! My family of 4 will be traveling to Beijing, Shanghai and Xian next week. We will be in these cities for approximately 2-3 days. The air quality has been marking ‘unhealthy’. Do you guys think we need to buy any masks and if so which ones should we?

    thanks,
    Jaime.

  10. Anna says:

    Hi David! Thanks for the great article. I am heading out to China in a little over a week and the Vespro shipping times are longer than that… Do you have any recommendations for masks available in the US or on Amazon? Would you trust Vogsmasks? Do you think it would be better to just go disposable at this point? Thanks!

    1. David says:

      Hi Anna, I am so sorry for getting around to replying to your comment so late! I’ve been traveling a lot lately. I do hope your trip to China is going well (or went well if you’re already back). I would love to know what you ended up doing about the face mask. Talk soon!

  11. Michelle says:

    Great information David. Thanks for taking the time to educate us. I’m sorry to say that I’m very interested in your information because I live in Salt Lake City, UT. How sad is it that I need a mask? Was it last year, or the year before, that we made international news because of the poorest air quality? Due to a rapid population growth (one of the fastest in the nation) the months of December – February can be very dangerous times to live here due to the inversion. Wearing a mask reminds me of the old Sci-fi movies in the 50’s. It was just Hollywood, right? Not ! Thanks again.

    1. David says:

      Wow I can’t believe the air is that bad in Salt Like City! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  12. jordan says:

    Really like the look of the respo masks, your dad looks like a bad ass in the first pic!

    I have a beard, so having some concerns about the fit of the city masks like you are both wearing.

    I don’t suppose you came across any information regarding fitting with a beard?

  13. Wolf says:

    Great read David!
    Just curios if I should be worried as I have asthma? I’m visiting in September and only staying for few days. Thank you!

    1. David says:

      Hi there, thanks for stopping by! I happened to visit during elevated levels, but I don’t see why your asthma should stop you from going if you have all your medications with you. Check with your Dr. of course but definitely wear a mask to be safe.

  14. Betty Weber-Maxted says:

    I’m traveling to China with a group tour for 21 days in Sept 2017. Cities we will be in are Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guilan & Hong Kong. I have been tracking air quality for approx 6 months & find it is usually in unhealthy status. Will Respro mask do a good job of filtering poor air quality? I also know weather is very warm during that time of yr & have concerns about how hot it would b wearing it. I don’t have any breathing issues currently but don’t want to develop them due to breathing bad air.

    1. David says:

      Hi Betty, thanks for leaving a comment! Respro will do a great job at filtering bad air. I actually wore it while traveling in Beijing last year on one of the worst “red” days of air pollution. Even if you don’t have any problems, it’s best to travel there with a mask so that you don’t get sick or get a cough. What I like about the Respro is that you can replace the carbon filter as many times as needed and you wash the mask if needed. Hope this helps.. Have a great trip!

  15. Chris says:

    Maybe of interest.. we developed a scarf that also functions as a face mask for nuisance level pollutants while traveling. Replaceable, 100% activated carbon filter. Questions and feedback are welcome!
    skotti-usa

  16. Vicki says:

    I am travelling to China mid May – have just heard about the Personal Air Purifers that you wear – they are expensive for a good one, around $150. Do you know anything about these?

  17. Olly says:

    I will be doing a 4 day stop over in Beijing enroute to Perth in December, is it worth worrying about a mask for this short time?

    1. David says:

      Hi Olly,

      I would suggest you getting a mask for even one day. It’s better to be safe then sorry 🙂

      1. Olly says:

        Fair play what basic one would you recommend.

  18. Steve says:

    Just purchased some 3M Aura 9211+ N95 for Beijing trip month June.
    Would 10 be enough to use for the month? Or do I need to use one per day? Thx.

    1. David says:

      yes I think it is enough. I didn’t change it once in 5 days. You are good to go!

  19. Vee says:

    Hi – I am going to China for 2 weeks for holiday (mainly walking holiday) and have respiratory issues when pollution/smog gets bad. I checked the Respro site and they have many masks – would you recommend a particular mask on the website? Thanks

    1. David says:

      hey I tested a few. Any of them will do the job!

  20. Linda says:

    Dear David, thank you very much for mentioning Cambridge Mask! I wanted to share with you our new product coming launched very soon. It will be our already made masks with an upgrade: a smart valve. Cambridge Mask’s SmartValve clips onto their mask, and, through an app, gives data on filter expiration levels, local air quality information as well as advise on breathing patterns. The masks are aimed at urban residents who are exposed to higher air pollution levels as well as cyclists, allergy sufferers and those with low immune systems or chemical sensitivities.

    Let me know if you would like to know more information! Thank you again for the write up!

    Best,
    Linda

  21. Faw says:

    Hello David,
    I will be living in Chongqing, China for about a year. Do you think that I need to buy a mask for the air pollution? Chongqing is ranked among the top 10 cities polluted in China and the 7th among the world. Its average is 101 particulate matter per year.

  22. RKS says:

    My mask has rating of PM 0.3. What is the difference between PM 0.3 and PM 2.5 anti pollution face masks? Which is more effective for filtering out pollution?

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