If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you’ve seen these familiar masks that are even named after surgeons. They were also a popular choice when N95 respirator-style masks sold out in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. While they don’t provide the same high level of respiratory protection, these disposable masks make breathing incredibly easy while still providing you with a barrier of protection. And, when paired with a surgical mask brace (also called a mask fitter), you can get N95-level protection by increasing the seal around your nose and mouth.
One important thing to know: This style of masks must meet FDA standards to legally be called a medical-grade “surgical mask,” which includes obtaining an ASTM 2100 Level 3 rating from an independent lab. Other 3-ply style masks can provide a sufficient level of quality and effectiveness, but without an ASTM rating or meeting medical-grade standards from the FDA (as listed on the packaging), it’s difficult to know what you’re actually getting. (That’s also why we are doing our own comprehensive testing.)
Before we get to our top picks, you should know a few things about surgical masks.
- Surgical masks typically have three layers of fabric
- Surgical masks are for single-use
- Surgical masks usually have ear loops instead of head straps
So how do we determine the relative quality of a surgical mask? First, our lab-based examination confirms that a mask meets its respective filtration goal, which in this case will be a minimum of 95% effectiveness. Then we assess its breathability, known as its airflow resistance. Generally, we want something that measures no higher than 150-pascal units but is ideally closer to 100 pascals, which is more comfortable in our experiences. Lastly, we give the ear loops a firm tug and conduct a sniff test to assess the construction and odor of the mask.
To date, we’ve tested over 200 surgical masks and can heartily recommend these five:
The Armbrust American blue surgical mask passed our tests for filtration effectiveness (99.62%), breathability (110.80 pascals), construction, and smell. This is the signature product of Armbrust American, and we manufacture them in our Texas factory. To be considered medical-grade, surgical-style masks like ours must receive an ASTM Level 3 rating from an independent laboratory testing service.
The DEMETECH ASTM Level 3 mask passed our particulate filtration efficiency machine test with a score of 99.17%, which is comparable in quality to 3M's N95 products. The airflow resistance of this mask is 53.80, which means you can count on excellent breathability. These masks smell like a cardboard box, likely because they’re not individually wrapped. The mask is American-made, and the overall construction is solid. You can purchase this from Amazon.
The Lutema M3PFM blue face mask blocked 99.17% of particulates during our filtration test. It also offers a high amount of breathability thanks to a low airflow resistance score of 59 pascals. This mask is American-made and is available through Amazon.
The Lisglo/SfAVEreak disposable blue mask passed our particulate filtration efficiency machine test with a score of 98.64%. It offers ASTM Level 3-quality protection but can’t officially make that claim. The airflow resistance of this mask is 41.50, so you’ll be able to breathe very easily. This mask smells like clothes dried on a clothesline. It’s Chinese-made, but the construction is solid.
The white Supple surgical mask passed our particulate filtration efficiency machine test with a score of 99%. The airflow resistance of this mask is an incredibly low 49, ensuring excellent breathability. This Chinese-made mask has a very pleasant smell. Its construction and materials are also high quality.
There you have it, the top five surgical masks you can feel good about wearing. However, if you can’t find any of the picks listed above, check out our comprehensive mask testing database, which has hundreds of reviews.