Best Cloth Face Masks for Kids 2021
According to Shu, the ideal mask for kids is “one that a child is willing and able to wear for most of the day, put on and remove correctly, and that she won’t be constantly touching.” Additionally, for a kids face mask to be comfortable and effective, it needs to fit properly, be made from multiple layers of a breathable material, and be appealing to kids.
Shape and fit
For a mask to fit properly, Shu said it “should cover nose and mouth and be secured below the chin, should fit snugly against the sides of the face, and should allow the child to breathe easily.”
Masks come in three styles: pleated, cone, and flat. Pleated masks expand to cover the nose and chin, whereas cone-shaped masks are shaped to arch up over the nose, and many extend below the chin. Flat masks are simple rectangles of fabric and are less likely to conform to the face. We recommend both pleated and cone-shaped masks in this guide. Both styles should fall just below the eyes and go up higher on the nose. A study involving one adult mask wearer showed that cone-style masks achieved a better seal on a representative adult-size face than pleated or flat masks, but there’s no evidence (yet) that one style is objectively better for kids. Shu advised choosing whichever mask fits best and is most comfortable for your child.
Some masks have nose-bridge wires, which help the top of the mask contour to the nose. Masks with nose-bridge wires seem to have the most benefit for older children and children with nasal bridges that are higher relative to their upper cheeks; we found that nose-bridge wires didn’t make much of a difference in fit for younger kids (around ages 3 to 6) with smaller noses. A nose-bridge wire may be especially beneficial for kids who wear glasses, if they experience fogging.
As with masks for adults, when it came to kids masks, we found that one size definitely did not fit all. Even brands offering multiple kids sizes weren’t well suited to every tester in the target size. To increase the odds of getting a good fit, look at the dimensions of the mask and compare them to the measurements of your child’s face before you order. But know that even if the dimensions of the mask seem appropriate, the ear loops play a big role in fit. For example, the Gap and Old Navy masks we recommend have nearly identical dimensions. But the Gap mask’s ear elastics are longer, which makes this mask more comfortable for older children. Some masks have adjustable ear loops to improve fit, and we found that these are a helpful feature. If Scout & Indiana’s mask didn’t have elastic that could be tied, it wouldn’t have fit a 3-year-old tester as well as it did. For safety reasons, we don’t recommend kids masks that wrap around or tie behind the head.
Layers and breathability
Generally speaking, the more densely woven the fabric is, the better it can block particles. One way to assess the density of a fabric is to look at the thread count (though most kids masks we found online didn’t list thread counts). However, very densely woven fabrics can come at the expense of breathability. Saif, the mechanical engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave us a trick for assessing the overall density of a fabric: Hold the mask up to the light. If the mask is easy to see through, its efficiency at filtering incoming particles may be lower than that of a mask that’s harder to see through.
A mask’s layers also influence how well it can block incoming and outgoing particles. A mask with two layers of fabric offers a great balance of protection and breathability, said Saif. He studied how well various fabrics stopped particles (those particles were created by an inhaler that released a high-velocity spray—akin to a cough or sneeze by someone wearing a mask). The data indicated that a single layer of most fabrics stops only about half of large droplets, which means that having at least two layers is key. “With 2 or 3 layers, even highly permeable fabrics, such as T-shirt cloth, achieve droplet blocking efficiency that is similar to that of a medical mask, while still maintaining comparable breathability,” the study found.
Think of particles as arrows shooting out of the mouth of a mask wearer toward a double-layer shield worn over their face, Saif explained. The first layer of fabric blocks only half of the arrows, but it also slows down the arrows that make it through. Because those remaining arrows have lost their momentum, the second layer of fabric stops them more effectively. Those that do escape the second layer won’t travel as far. A July 2020 mask study also concluded that “a cloth face covering with at least two layers is preferable to a single-layer one.” For these reasons, we considered only masks made from at least two or more layers.
Because breathability is important both for comfort and protection, too many layers are not necessarily better. Saif recommended against adding too many layers of fabric or a filter, if it makes the mask less breathable. Trapped air might force you to push air in and out around the mask (where there are gaps between the mask and your face), instead of through it; this could make the mask less effective overall. A review of 25 studies agreed that “there is a trade-off in that more layers increases the resistance to breathing.” The Happy Mask Pro was the only one we tested that had more than three layers—including a built-in filter layer—but that still remained breathable, comfortable, and well fitted.
Many masks available for kids do have a filter pocket, which allows you to add an extra fabric layer or filter. We commissioned independent lab tests (you can read more details below and in our adult mask guide), and we found that filters generally did improve the filtration of the adult masks we sent for testing. But there are a few caveats: First, a filter layer was more effective only when it fit the entire expanse of the mask; otherwise, air could get in or out around any areas the filter didn’t cover. And though we sent only comfortable and adjustable masks to be tested, the lab tests also didn’t specifically account for fit or comfort (which Shu said should still be a priority in masks for kids). The CDC backs the idea that fit and comfort are primary considerations, noting that you should pay careful attention to your child’s breathing if you’re going to add a filter. In a statement, the organization cautions that “some children (age 2 and older) may tolerate wearing one mask without any problems but may not be able to tolerate improved fit and filtration techniques.”
Shu pointed out that above all, “The mask should be comfortable and breathable. Otherwise the child will be less likely to keep it on.” And in a classroom, Shu said, “If everyone is mutually masking, then filtration will be more effective.”
Getting kids to wear a mask
Parenting expert and psychologist Laura Markham said parental attitudes and actions are paramount in getting children to wear masks. “If you always wear one when you are out, they’ll want to wear a mask,” she said. While working on this guide, I discovered that my 3-year-old especially likes wearing light-blue masks because they remind him of the surgical masks my husband wears at work: “I look like Daddy,” he says, beaming.
Explain to your child that wearing a mask is about protecting other people, like older relatives, who could get very sick from people who don’t wear a mask around them. Markham recommended telling kids that “this is a way we show that we’re caring for other people.” And to make it fun, you could say, “We’re superheroes, just like superheroes wear masks, we’re protecting other people. Let’s look for other people who are superheroes too.”
It’s important to start small and work up to longer periods, Markham said. If your child is new to regularly wearing a mask, for instance if they’re soon to start preschool or are going back to in-person learning or camp, Markham recommends starting in your home. You could perhaps play a game like “guess my emotion”—a twist on charades in which everyone in the family puts on a mask, and then you each take turns acting out an emotion while others guess what it could be. We tried this with my 3- and 6-year-olds, and we had fun using our whole bodies to show feelings like “frustrated,” “excited,” and “bored.” We also tried Bill Nye’s makeshift way to “show” that a mask is working by taking turns trying to blow out a candle while wearing each of the masks we tested.
Shu suggested that a good time to practice wearing a mask is when a child is doing a quiet activity like watching videos or listening to a story. These small sessions will give you an opportunity to troubleshoot the mask and find ways to make it comfier (read more in the Making it comfortable section, below). Children should also be encouraged to wash their hands after handling their worn masks in practice sessions. And even if a parent decides on the brand of mask, Markham said it’s valuable to have your child choose the pattern or color so they feel a sense of ownership.
Other articles recommend letting children feel a little righteous about mask-wearing, having masks on hand for pretend play, and coloring or drawing pictures of their favorite mask-wearing characters. Rewards or sticker charts can be an option for motivating a reluctant mask wearer.
Making it comfortable
You may have to try more than one brand or style of mask before you find the right one for your child. But there are several things you can do to help make masks more comfortable to wear for long periods. To take pressure off the back of the ears, you can add buttons to a hat or headband and attach the ear loops to the buttons. Alternatively, you can make or purchase “ear savers” or “strap extenders,” so the mask secures behind the head—ideally with a safety release, in case the mask gets caught on something while your kid is playing. (As we note elsewhere, we didn’t test any masks that tied or fastened behind the head, due to the potential strangulation hazard.)
Kids who wear glasses may find that fogging becomes a problem while they’re wearing a mask; a nose-bridge wire may be valuable because it helps create a closer seal along the top of the mask, limiting exhalations from going up toward the glasses. If the mask you purchase doesn’t have a nose-bridge wire, you can buy stick-on ones. You can also try resting the glasses on top of the mask. Washing glasses with soap and water or an anti-fogging solution—we’ve covered the options—may also help.
Wearing a mask for hours can cause skin irritation, chafing, or chapped lips. For chafing, petroleum jelly may do the trick, but there are also mask-specific products that health-care providers use, like Body Glide Face Glide and MedZone Face Balm. If your child has sensitive skin and needs to wear a mask for long periods, it may be worth putting one of these in their backpack. Skin irritation can also be made worse with synthetic fabrics (like polyester) or fabric dyes, so it may be necessary to try a different mask. For more help troubleshooting skin problems, including “mask-ne,” the American Academy of Dermatology offers these tips.
What to avoid
Everyone should avoid masks that have “breathing valves,” which are round plastic pieces on one side of a mask that allow exhaled air out, often without passing through all the layers that serve to filter air (you sometimes see these valves on N95 masks). These types of masks are intended for use when there is debris in the air, like at a construction site or for smoke or pollution. Shu warned that “masks with exhalation valves are not recommended for prevention of viral transmission since they release particles from the wearer into the air.”
Masks with straps and ties that go around the head or neck pose a safety concern for young children, especially while they’re at play. A spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) told us, “CPSC understands the need for facial masks while playing on playgrounds, particularly with the greater respiratory rate while playing, yelling, etc. CPSC also notes the hazards associated with cords that could loop around the neck.” Shu and other child health experts have also noted that children need to be able to remove their masks independently. For these reasons, we did not include any masks with ties or elastic that fastened around the head or neck.
As noted above, masks with only one layer of fabric don’t offer nearly as much protection as masks made from two or more layers. For this reason, we also don’t think single-layer masks or most gaiters are the best choice (we provide more context on the controversy over the effectiveness of gaiters in our guide to the best face masks for adults). As for face shields, “droplets may escape from the sides or bottom,” Shu said, adding that face shields could “possibly be a substitute in children who may be unable to wear a mask.”