Should you use an airline sleep mask as a face cover during coronavirus?

Apr 11, 2020

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Everyone in the U.S. should be wearing a cloth mask in certain public settings, according to new CDC recommendations announced last week. Though masks and respirators approved for medical use should still be reserved exclusively for critical health care workers, cloth face coverings may help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“There is some science coming out to suggest this may help,” research scientist and frequent traveler, Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., told TPG. “The previous recommendation was that the mask is used to capture the virus by someone who is contagious, but the new assumption is everyone could be contagious and not know … The use of cloth as a barrier is less known, but the principles apply that if the droplet gets caught, [the virus] has less chance of getting in. And if you are infected but don’t know, it won’t travel far.”

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Since the new guidelines were released, it’s safe to say many people are taking a creative approach to fashioning cloth masks. After all, even the CDC has tutorials for DIY face masks using old bandanas, coffee filters and cloth shirts.

But some AvGeeks have found a way to take advantage of their amenity kit stockpiles.

On Sunday, Greg Davis-Kean of Frequent Miler published a story about the face mask most travelers probably already have in their closets: eye shades from airline amenity kits.

Davis-Kean said his wife came up with the idea, since they have a collection of about four or five different airline sleep masks. The business-class British Airways mask by The White Shade was the clear winner he said, thanks to its “combination of comfort and effectiveness.” Though the Lufthansa first-class mask was the most comfortable, Davis-Kean said, it didn’t offer the same amount of coverage.

So, what makes a sleep mask great for daily wear during a pandemic?

Davis-Kean told TPG they’re “reasonably comfortable” — but they’re not perfect. “One little issue,” he said, is that “the fabric on the inside of the British Airways eyeshade sometimes tickles [his] nose a bit.”

“Another issue,” he said, “is that the [masks] with a single band that goes around your head can be more comfortable, but they can sometimes slip off your nose if you’re not careful. The ones with two bands, one over your ear and one below, can be less comfortable, but also don’t slip — so they’re probably more effective.”

Whether inspired by Frequent Miler or the result of simultaneous invention, the concept of reusing old airline eye masks as personal protective equipment has spread rapidly. So, TPG editors dug around their closets to put the trend to the test — and there were some clear winners.

(Photo courtesy of The Points Guy)
(Photo courtesy of The Points Guy)

According to TPG’s executive editorial director Scott Mayerowitz, his Austrian Airline’s mask from a business-class flight in 2017 was a top contender. He said it was comfortable, not too soft and the double straps helped keep the mask in place.

Comparing a sleep mask from Hong Kong Airlines to Cathay Pacific, associate writer Chris Dong said there was no competition. “Cathay Pacific has an adjustable velcro strap in the back, which makes a world of difference. I couldn’t breathe in any of the other ones really,” Dong said.

Like Davis-Kean, Lufthansa’s eye mask was a win for credit cards editor Benét Wilson. “It was very soft and the single elastic was stretchy and quite comfortable.”

We also tried Delta’s Tumi mask, a Kenya Airways mask and a United 747 mask (flipped upside down, of course) — the latter proved a bit too loose.

Another standout was American Airline’s business-class mask, which senior editor Nick Ewen called his “far-and-away winner” thanks to its nose bump-out and massive coverage.

Related: Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

So, what should you look for when shopping in your closet for old airline eye masks to use as a face mask? Dr. Yu told TPG some are definitely better than others.

“Avoid something that just barely covers your mouth, like the Polaris ones,” Dr. Yu said. “They are great for sleeping, but don’t cover as well. They are thicker than most face masks and have a tight weave,” he said, because they’re usually polyester fabric instead of cotton. “You definitely want it to cover your mouth from well below the lower lip to above your nostrils. If not, when you speak, you can potentially expose your mouth.”

The size and circumference of your head will dictate, at least to an extent, which of your eye masks can best be repurposed into a face mask. What might be too snug or too loose for one traveler could be a perfect fit for you.

And no matter what type of face mask you use — be it a business-class eye shade or a handmade cloth mask created from an old shirt — be sure to abide by best-use practices.

“The masks may be helpful when you cannot keep physical distance from people,” Dr. Yu said. “While cloth masks may not hurt, there are some general rules in handling them.”

Among them? Always wash your hands before putting the mask on, and again after removing it.

Dr. Yu also said to “avoid touching the mask” and only “handle the elastic part” so you’re not coming into contact with the part of the mask designed to trap the virus. And if you’re going to reuse your mask, remember it needs to be washed. “I recommend soapy water, [the] same principle as hand washing,” Dr. Yu said. “You can also rinse in hotter water before drying. Again, wash [your] hands after.”

 

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