With the Coronavirus here to stay for some time, a face mask or face covering is becoming an essential item everyone needs to have with them. While you don’t need to wear a mask all the time while biking or exercising, it’s becoming something everyone should have nearby in case the need arises.
If you decide to wear a face covering, which one do you choose? There are so many options right now, and some are better for biking and working out than others. It’s mostly a trade off between breathability and protection while maintaining comfort, so pick the one that best suits you for your ride. (And don’t use a mask with exhaust valves as that defeats the purpose of the mask! Those are primarily to protect from pollution, not viruses.)
For me, the weather also changes which mask is the best for biking. When it’s hotter, I prefer the surgical mask because it’s light and easy. If it’s cooler I may wear the shemagh around my neck like a scarf and pull it up when necessary.
If you have a few options at home already and you want to test how much protection and breathability each one has, put your hand in front of the mask and blow out. Most of the ones I’ve used I haven’t felt much of anything when blowing out. If you do, maybe try a different option. Then try to run around the block and see how you feel. If you wear glasses while biking, make sure you can get them to not fog up while you’re moving.
The are three general options of masks to choose from: surgical masks, cloth masks, and N95 (or stronger) masks.
If this is available, I think the (non-molded) surgical mask is one of the best face masks for biking, since it has a considerable amount of space on the sides where you can breathe, and the metal prong on top if done right can keep your glasses from fogging up. However, that breathability comes at a cost, and it may not provide as much protection as other face coverings tighter on the face.
The only difference between the surgical mask and an around the ear cloth mask are the materials and a bit of extra filtration (since surgical masks are specifically made to catch virus/bacteria particles), but many cloth masks can be just as nice.
I like this around the ear style for the ease of use for taking it on and off. Just make sure to put it on after your helmet or it will get stuck in between all the straps if you want to take it off during the ride.
Cloth masks come in many different shapes, sizes, materials, just everything. The breathability depends on the materials made, and some have space for filters in them (which can be a coffee filter or paper towel for a DIY). There’s also much variability in how you attach them to your face. I really like the face masks on Etsy since they’re all unique.
I personally like these face masks from this Etsy store recommended by a friend. I find that I can wear it for longer without being bothered much. After wearing the surgical masks more often for months, I got tired of the factory/hospital smell of them.
The best face covering style for biking and exercising is the kind that wraps around the ears like the surgical masks and has the metal prong to shape it to your face (and keep your glasses from fogging). I also like the styles where you tie it around the back of your head and can drop it down around your neck or untie it when not using it. It depends on the weather and how hard you’re pushing on your bike ride. Many of the options I’ve shared can also be DIY’d to be worn around the ears if you have hair ties, rubber bands, or some other strap material.
Shemagh (aka Keffiyeh)
This square scarf from the Middle East is good at many things. One of them being covering your face while bike riding! I had one socked away in my closet, and realized it is surprisingly comfortable while biking around. I just made a triangle and tied it around the back of my head, so I had 2 layers of cloth over my face, but there are many more ways to tie a shemagh or keffiyeh if you want to do a 4 layer tie. If I was more socially isolated or needed more oxygen, I could easily drop it around my neck.
Breathability: High to medium. They can be thick especially when folded over many layers.
Buff or Neck Gaitor
This tube scarf also has many different uses, one of them being covering your nose and mouth. There is a lot of variety with the size and fabric used. One thing about any small circular scarf like a buff is that if I got too hot and wanted to take it off, I had to take off my helmet and sunglasses, so that was not a quick and easy change.
I have one that is long with thin, elastic fabric. This one hugs my face tightly, so it caused any lip movement to be uncomfortable (and you definitely can’t lick your lips with that thing on!). I also have one that is a thicker material and shorter, more like a scarf.
You have to fiddle with it sometimes to make it stay over your nose and mouth. My thin one I had to pull up around the back of my head to make sure it stayed put.
There’s been some research reports that buffs and neck gaiters (they say neck fleece) can actually be worse for Covid-19 protection by breaking down large droplets into smaller ones and releasing those. This depends greatly on the fabric, so make sure that it is a thick enough fabric and maybe doubled over if you’re using this kind of face covering.
Breathability: Usually high, but depends on the fabric.
A bandana is similar to any other cloth mask. You can even take a bandana and make a mask out of it with a few hair tires or rubber bands. Make sure you double over the bandana material at least once.
Cloth Mask Made from Cycling Jersey Material
I’ve heard good things about these masks made by Eliel since they’re made with the same Lycra material cycling jerseys are made of. This should make them very breathable, but I haven’t tried them myself.
Cloth Face Covering with a Filter
Some face coverings can have replaceable filters for protection that’s more than just a few layers of cloth. You can always DIY this by adding a coffee filter or paper towel that you can dispose of at the end of the day.
The Scough (scarf + cough) is a cool face covering that has an active barrier concealed within a scarf or bandana. They are having trouble meeting demand, but if you pre-order one may come eventually.
Honestly this should be a last resort, as it seems unnecessary for biking unless you’re going to be standing around people very close to you while talking. However, it does offer the best most complete protection. I wear these for protection against wildfire smoke in California, and it works well, but I wouldn’t want to do any heavy exercise in it.
How to get one: Because of the total protection of the N95 mask, this is also the one healthcare workers need the most, since they may be around COVID-19 patients all day. There are some on Amazon and eBay.
Mask with Exhalation Valves
These masks with exhalation valves are meant more for pollution instead of viruses. It prevents particles from getting in, but when you breathe out the valve opens and lets your breath out (unless it has some kind of exhale filter). While this may sound nice, the small valve hole causes exhaled viral matter to be projected farther than if you were just breathing normally. So in fact, this mask is WORSE than a normal mask or even no mask at all. If you have one of these masks, you can tape over the valves to make it compliant, but then it’s likely the same as another cloth mask.
As you can see there are tons of options for face coverings while biking or exercising. You may not want to wear them for your entire ride, but in a crowded area they may be good to have. My favorite masks are the surgical mask for warmer weather and the shemagh for cooler weather, and check out the options on Etsy!
Let me know in the comments what mask you prefer, especially if it isn’t yet on the list. And check out my FAQ on biking amid coronavirus for more answers to any COVID-19 questions.