When I told people I was attempting an 18-mile round trip commute 5 days a week, many raised their eyebrows. I’d gone from walking 30 minutes or so to work every day to taking on a huge cycling trek through South London.
And naturally, for this, I wanted to try and find one of those intense Bane-like masks for cycling and see if I can remove one of my paranoias off of my ever-increasing list.
Some seasoned cyclists told me that cycling pollution masks were unnecessary, uncomfortable, and a huge waste of money while others told me it was a lifeline necessity. I read endless articles where experts weighed in that it did little to protect you from the tiniest particles that are the worst of pollution and at best just gave drivers a bad conscience about their contribution to London’s air pollution.
Needless to say, I was absolutely confused as to which mask to buy, but quite convinced I should try. And what I failed to find was an article that reviewed ALL masks available and compared them — so I set about to do that myself.
The overall verdict? Good luck trying to find a decent mask if you wear glasses. But you can see the breakdown of each mask I tried and their performance below.
The Cambridge Mask
Selling for around £22 online and through Amazon, The Cambridge Mask was the least annoying mask I tried on. I got the small size, given I have a pretty small head, and I appreciated the snazzy designs they have on offer.
The problem? It’s not adjustable. So your face really has to fit it. I couldn’t even wear the mask for an entire ride because, while breathing into the mask, the hot hair came out of the space between the mask and my face and fogged my glasses up. I rode it for maybe 15 maximum minutes before the fog became a safety issue.
And wearing a pollution mask may be great, but it’s not really worth it if I can’t see out of my glasses and end up just like the plethora of road kill I’ve had the misfortune to cycle past.
I do think that overall, this mask was my general favourite. It wasn’t scratchy, painful or difficult and it didn’t look as intense as other masks did. There might be some who could customise the behind the ear loops to fit them, but I found, as you’ll see in the next review, even when they are customisable, it may not actually be any better.
Selling online for £25 (with a pack of 15 filter replacements for £12), the Totobobo has a cool name and a Marmite (love it or hate it) look. I really wanted to like this mask because the branding was very friendly and it seemed like a good option, but I couldn’t even get 2 minutes into my commute without multiple problems.
The first problem was the stretchy small plastic straps going around your ears. They are adjustable but in order to get it tight enough to make it secure on my face, it pulled my ears forward, which in turn meant my glasses had no security on my ears and became loose. During the first bits of my ride, my glasses constantly slipped down my nose, threatening to fall of if I turned my head suddenly — an even more dangerous proposition than glasses fog.
The second problem lay in the mask fitting to my face. Despite strapping the mask tight to my face, I still had hot breath leaking out of the top, causing fog even when my glasses balanced on my nose. The makers suggest submerging the plastic mask into some pre-boiled hot water and then apply the mask to your face, hold it there until it cools so it can fit tight to your face with a seal. It also suggests using water to test for any air leaks in the seal.
I did this in the middle of a London heat wave (note my dedication), sweat leaking down my face and I tried multiple times, just because I really wanted to love this mask. Despite it’s ‘odd’ look, I was sold. But no matter how hard I tried, cutting the mask smaller, and trying the seeping in boiled water technique multiple times, I was just an ugly stepsister trying on an ill-fitting glass slipper.
The Totobobo might work for someone who doesn’t wear glasses and has a short commute. And it may be that someone’s better at moulding it to their face than I am. But glasses wearers, be wary.
Respro Ultralight Mask
When it comes to cycling masks, Respro are the most popular and easily probably the most ‘professional’ looking mask. The Bane-looking ones you see? That’s them. And they come with a professional price. The one I’m reviewing here retails at £45.99.
Before I get into my review of it, I wanted to let readers know that both Cambridge and Totobobo were happy to provide me masks to tests free of charge. Respro told me I could buy the mask from them and then get reimbursed after they had seen the review. For all those unaware of how reviewing products usually works, this is pretty unprecedented.
I was surprised that such a popular brand would refuse to supply a sample for review even after I answered multiple, extensive questions on how I was going to review their product. Promising reimbursement only after the review is shared and published obviously doesn’t incline me towards reviewing the product honestly, which is severely sketchy. Not to mention, they were also pretty rude.
I’m including that caveat because I had to buy the mask second-hand from another person, although they had only worn the mask a few times. The could mean that the Ultralight isn’t the ideal Respro mask for me to try for cycling, but given the packaging claims the Ultralight is good for individuals breathing fast, I thought it wasn’t completely off the mark.
On the positive side, I did wear the Respro for multiple rides, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable. Despite having ‘valves’ that are meant to allow you to get the hot air out, my hot breath condensed to form a mini-greenhouse that made it pretty gross when I took it off and made it slip all over my face half the time. The nose clip at the top meant to prevent air from escaping had to be constantly adjusted and at times felt painful on the bridge on my nose.
The tight nose clip meant that, unlike in other masks, I couldn’t breathe through my nose, which made it even harder to breathe properly while using it. And even though it didn’t shoot fog up into my face most of the time, the inability to take a decent full breath made the mask in and of itself uncomfortable.
Not to mention, the greenhouse effect after 20 minutes riding caused moisture to seep through the bottom and top edges, making the mask slip on my face if I went to try and relieve the pressure from the nose clip or touched it in any way. Air escaped from the bottom and top causing glasses fog again and rendered it mostly pointless.
Strapping the mask below your ears and around the back of your neck does make for a far more secure fit than around the ears, but it’s still a lot of pressure on your neck. And cycling for 2 hours a day with that pressure for a few days created a lot of tension in my neck.
Despite the website saying the material was breathable, it just wasn’t. It was so uncomfortable that I didn’t make it past using it for two days. And had I paid £46 to experience that, I would have been really frustrated.
It is possible that buying the mask directly from Respro complete with a measurement of your face and their advice on what type of mask you should get for what you need it for might yield better results. Respro didn’t give me the opportunity to do that.
If you have a short commute, it’s definitely a good investment if you want a cycling mask. It will stay on and wearing glasses doesn’t risk slippage or much fog problems. But for longer commutes, you’ll have to be made of sturdier stuff than I to cope with the constant discomfort.
When I set out to do this review, I wanted to review more than just three masks, and I wanted to test them both cycling and walking around Central London to really test the usefulness of wearing a mask cycling, since many suggest cycling near cars puts you more at risk of pollution than riding in them.
But given that I couldn’t even wear most of them throughout my entire ride, I had to scrap that idea. Also, only being able to get a hold of three major masks, one of which I had to purchase myself, I had to settle for just testing them on my own commute.
I did request other masks from multiple sources. There’s a good number of masks made in Asia which you can find online for much cheaper than any listed here, but no one got back to me at all and sometimes I couldn’t even find the company actually selling some of the ones listed on Amazon. Even Googling their names yielded little to no results.
Based off of this awesome Quora answer about masks and air pollution, I attempted to get my hand on the 3M masks, despite them not being used for cycling, but heard nothing back. I was also concerned with endorsing a product that was ‘disposable’ and it’s environmental impact.
So there it is. I tried each mask and, in the end, I don’t wear a mask when I cycle now. Even ones that stayed on the entire time still were either incredibly uncomfortable or ran risk of killing me by fogging up or causing my glasses to fall off.
But again, my commute is 9 miles each way, which usually takes me up to an hour. Shorter commutes might be tolerable. And if my commute were shorter, I’d definitely wear a mask. But anything longer, and you’ve got to be made of tougher stuff.
If there any other mask companies willing to provide a mask for review to compare against these three, I’d love to try them. Shoot an email to us and I’ll edit and update the article when I’ve given it a try.
Words by Lola Phoenix