Effectiveness of commercial face masks to reduce personal PM exposure

Sci Total Environ. 2019 Feb 10;650(Pt 1):1582-1590. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.09.109. Epub 2018 Sep 10.


Cycling and walking are promoted as means of transportation which can contribute to the reduction of traffic pollution in urban areas. However, cyclists and pedestrians may be exposed to high concentrations of air pollutants due to their proximity to vehicle emissions. Commercial face mask respirators are widely used, in both developing and developed countries, as an individual protective measure against particle pollution. However scientific data on the efficacy of face mask respirators in reducing airborne particle exposure is limited. In this study, a custom experimental set-up was developed in order to measure the effectiveness of nine different respirators under real environmental conditions in terms of particle mass concentration below 2.5 μm (PM2.5), particle number concentration (PNC), Lung Deposited Surface Area (LDSA) and Black Carbon concentration (BC). Face mask performances were assessed in a typical traffic affected urban background environment in the city of Barcelona under three different simulated breathing rates to investigate the influence of flow rate. Results showed a median face mask effectiveness for PM2.5 equal to 48% in a range of 14-96%, 19% in a range of 6%-61% for BC concentration, 19% in a range of 4%-63% for PNC and 22% in a range of 5%-65% for LDSA. For each pollutant under investigation, the best performance was found always with the same mask (N7) although it is not the most expensive (in a range of price of 1 to 44, its cost was 20 euros), which has a filter on the entire surface except for the 2 exhalation valves where air cannot enter but just exit and shows a good fit on the dummy head.

Keywords: Black carbon; Commuters exposure; Cyclist's exposure protection; Lung deposited surface area; Personal protective equipment; Ultrafine particles.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Air Pollution / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cities
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Inhalation Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Masks*
  • Particulate Matter / analysis*
  • Protective Clothing
  • Vehicle Emissions / analysis


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter
  • Vehicle Emissions