If you bike commute in an urban environment or along roads with cars, you might have wondered whether pollution masks can protect you against negative effects of poor air quality.
Do cycling pollution masks really work? If using a close-fitting, high-quality face mask for pollution protection, bike commuters can reduce their exposure to most of the most damaging parts of poor quality air on their journey.
However, it is currently almost impossible to state how effective face masks are for bike commuters’ health in the long-term as there is no known good quality research that has tested their impact for cyclists. That said, it seems likely that reducing your exposure to certain pollutants by 99% is a good idea!
Why is pollution a problem for bike commuters?
The problem of air quality is extremely serious in many major cities, with estimates of over 3,000 deaths resulting from pollution caused by ‘fine particulate matter’ (or PM2.5) and ozone (O3) in New York City (the biggest city in the USA by population). This is just one example and unfortunately, there are many more areas across North America and around the world where air pollution continues to be a public health concern.
What is PM 2.5 and why is it so harmful?
PM 2.5 is another name for ‘fine particulate matter, an air pollutant that can have negative effects on health when there is a large amount of it in the air.
These are tiny particles or droplets in the air that we breathe yet they are impossible to see with the naked eye given that they are as small as 1/10,000th of an inch in width.
Constantly breathing in solid particles, however small, can have a negative effect on your health over time.
Air quality: when to wear a face mask?
A face mask for pollution is recommended when bike commuting or cycling close to roads. This could be anything up to several yards from the road itself.
Almost all urban commuters would likely benefit from wearing a face mask to prevent air pollution from having a negative effect on their lungs over time. Particularly at risk are those commuters who are regularly stuck in traffic jams as car exhaust fumes can be extremely concentrated in these cases.
Anyone riding uphill or going fast would also benefit from wearing pollution mask regularly. This is because riding in a more intensive way leads to heavier breathing, which in turn leads to intense inhalations. Big, deep breaths involve more pollution exposure for lungs, with more extreme effects than on people who are breathing gently or lightly.
Riding in dry conditions also means that there’s likely to be more dust and bits in the air, so a pollution mask is extremely useful in those conditions to stop you breathing in nasty things in the air around you.
I should add that urban riders should consider wearing some kind of face mask for protection from pollution as often as possible. However, if you want to check the air quality in your city or area, simply search Google for the name of your city + air quality, for instance see this link for an example search from NYC.
What kind of mask is used for air pollution?
Face masks with N99 filters are a great starting point. N99 filters are called that because they will filter out 99% of PM2.5 particulate matter. Unsurprisingly, masks using these filters are in the top price bracket but you might find that’s worth the extra value (I’ve got one for that reason!)
Masks with a protection factor 5 will filter out all but 5% of problem air pollutants. Getting rid of 95% of pollutants may not be perfect but it’s certainly a huge increase when compared to breathing in 100% of pollutants without a mask on a daily basis! Just thinking about that alone certainly makes a mask sound a lot more appealing.
Is a surgical mask effective against pollution?
Unfortunately, surgical masks do very little to protect against air pollution. This is because they do not have filters and are instead meant for hygiene purposes to stop bacteria and liquids from the mouths of surgeons causing infections.
As they are not intended to prevent against air pollutants, they therefore have almost no impact if used in the street as a barrier against pollution.
Although it is tempting to buy these given their price, do not be fooled into thinking that they can be used as air pollution masks – they simply can’t.
They are also largely made of plastic-based materials, making them sweaty when used for any kind of high-intensity activity, like bike commuting for example.
How bad is air pollution for bike commuters?
Air pollution will have an impact on your lungs and overall health if you are regularly exposed to it. Clearly, bike commuting on a regular basis in traffic and on busy roads will cause you to be exposed to air pollution when cycling. However, you should also consider the impact of riding through extremely dry, arid or dusty areas as breathing in air that is full of dust particles is not good for you either, regardless of how ‘natural’ the source of the dust may be!
Another factor to consider here is that when doing exercise or physical activity like riding a bike, you will be taking deeper breaths. These deep inhalations can make the impact of polluted air even worse for your lungs and
This point about deep breaths while bike commuting will be particularly relevant to those who:
- cycle to work quickly or in a hurry
- have hills to ride up
- have any existing respiratory condition like asthma, for example
The other thing to note about the negative effects of air pollution on bike commuters is that it really is a slow-run thing, something that you might not notice at all but doing it for years can take a toll on your health.
As such, if you are you going to be riding in any of the conditions above, an anti-pollution mask is likely going to be a good investment in the long run.
How do I choose a pollution mask?
To choose the right mask, you certainly need it be close-fitting. Without a close fit, the filter on your anti-pollution mask will be rendered useless as most of the pollution will still get into your airways!
Added to the above, you need your anti-pollution mask to be comfortable. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s unlikely that you will wear it on more than a handful of times, wasting your money and not protecting your lungs!
This is where being able to try on a mask is extremely helpful, or at least looking into product reviews that detail the comfort of the mask specifically.
Allows you to breathe! OK, so clearly all pollution masks will allow you to breathe, but some might not fit the shape of your face very well, or they might be more suited to less intense activities like walking.
Something I’ve noticed with my anti-pollution mask is that, although it feels quite close, I can still breathe fine without difficulty. It’s certainly different to not wearing a mask, but the payoff is such that it’s certainly worth a little bit of adjustment to your regular breathing.
Good Quality Filter
Without a good quality filter, your anti-pollution mask will again be useless! With this in mind, don’t opt for cheaper masks unless they specifically state the rating of the filter used in the mask (see earlier points in this article for more detail on the types of filter.
Generally, you’ll want a filter the right filter rating of N99 and/or a protection factor of 5 to provide you with the most protection against airborne nasties!
What are the best masks for air pollution when bike commuting?
There are quite a few out there but you definitely want to go for a slightly more expensive air pollution mask for it to be of any real benefit.
I say this because it needs to have at least an N95 filter, but ideally an N99 filter.
COVID 19 UPDATE
Please note that face masks are surging in demand so sites like Amazon likely do not have many of the top brands available. You can try Amazon for ‘N99 face masks washable’ for the best on offer and see what you can find from there.
Some of the most common brands in the anti-pollution face mask field for cycling are:
- Cambridge Mask Co
If you decide to go for one of these, simply check that it has a N95 (minimum) or N99 (optimal) filter and that the customer reviews are positive for comfort.
I’m currently using the Airinum Urban Mask 2.0 and have found it pretty comfortable so far, a lot more comfortable than other, cheaper masks I’ve owned previously (although none were by the companies listed above!)
How long do filters last on air pollution masks?
Taking my Airinum 2.0 mask as an example, the company states that the filter will last for approximately 100 hours of use.
I would suggest then estimating how long you will be using it for each day, or at least how many hours per week.
For my bike commute, I wear a mask for approximately 15 minutes each way, making it 30 minutes a day. I should therefore be able to use the same filter for 200 days of commuting.
For Airinum masks specifically, you can buy replacement filters that come in 2-packs quite easily from places like Amazon.
However, Airinum state that they also recommend users change the filter every two weeks for reasons of hygiene. I must confess I was a little shocked by this given the price of the filters, but I suppose that if I simply halve my estimate to 100 days of bike commuting that I will still get some good use out of it before it becomes unhygienic to use.
As I currently bike commute 5 days/week, I should get around 20 weeks of good use out of this filter. I know this is a heck of a lot more than the recommended 2 weeks from Airinum, but given that the filter is good for 100 hours, I see no need to replace it any sooner at this point.
That said, when riding up hills (which I do a very small amount of on my ride to work commute), it is very easy to break a sweat when wearing a pollution mask. It is for this reason that I think Airinum suggest the hygienic change of filter on a regular basis.
When thinking about how long these kinds of pollution mask filters would last for you and your commute, do a quick calculation of time and how many days you will likely use it. I should add here that these masks can be used for other activities like walking or scootering, although I think running/jogging would be a stretch.
What cycling face masks can I use for summer?
Most of the top-end face masks should be fine to use in summer months. They will be quite hot but there’s no obvious way to get around that.
Most masks with replacement filters will suit as you’ll likely want to change them regularly for reasons of hygiene. In fact, Airinum recommend that users change their filters every two weeks for hygienic reasons.
If you are bike commuting regularly in hot conditions, expect your mask to be pretty gross after about two weeks of use as they make your nose and upper lip get really hot and sweaty when riding in direct sun for any period of time. You’ll also get sweaty if riding up hills or going fast on your commute.
How long do cycling mask filters last?
The Swedish anti-pollution mask manufacturer Airinum state that their filters are good for up to 100 hours of use.
However, they also state that they recommend riders changing the filter every two weeks for hygienic reasons. I plan to stick to the 100 hours of use point since their filters are not that cheap and changing them every fortnight could get quite costly (although I’ll rethink my plans if I suddenly break out with acne!!)
Are there cycling face masks for bugs?
There aren’t any masks currently on the market to prevent bugs, insects and flies from getting into your mouth or nose. However, any of the good quality anti-pollution masks for cycling or walking should be fine to use for this purpose.
This is because they can be used on hot days and they will protect you from both pollution and from swallowing those annoying insects and bugs! The only downside to using them on hot days is that they’ll likely get a little sweaty quite quickly, meaning you’ll need to take good care of your mask to make it last long enough not to become an expensive repeat purchase.