Chicago, IL

How to choose the best face mask for children headed back to school

Jennifer Geer

All students and teachers in Illinois are required to wear face masks indoors this fall. Since kids will be wearing them for at least six hours, you'll want to find a well-fitting mask that your child finds comfortable. And a cute pattern doesn't hurt either.

It's not where we wanted to be as kids head to full-time in-person this fall, but here we are.

No longer a disease of the old, the Delta variant has changed the game. In Tennessee, children's hospitals will be full by the end of the week. In Jacksonville, Florida, kids admitted to pediatric hospitals in July jumped four times the amount from June.

And in Illinois, the IDPH Director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike said there has been a "concerning" increase among cases and hospitalizations in youth.

How to find a comfortable face mask for your child

With the school mask mandate from Governor Pritzker, masks are required for children this fall. Your best bet is to find a mask that fits your child well and is comfortable to wear.

Everyone is different, and there is no one size fits all. Keep this in mind when buying shopping for masks. You may need to try several different styles to find the right one.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I bought a set of pleated cloth masks for my daughter with cute patterns, but she could not tolerate them. She said she felt she couldn't breathe. So, we tried another style and found that she liked the cone-shaped style with adjustable ear straps. She says after a few minutes of wearing her mask, she can forget that it's on.

And that's what you want for your kid. To be able to put their mask on for the day and forget about it.

What should you look for in a mask?

For my daughter, we've found the cone-shaped style to be more breathable than pleated. And adjustable ear loops are a must.

The New York Times put out a guide to choosing masks for children. They say that finding a good fit for a kid may involve trial and error.

Why should you check out this guide? Because the Times has the resources to do a lot of testing. The Times spent a year looking at 100 cloth and disposable kid's masks. They examined scientific studies, talked to researchers and other health experts, and assessed filtration efficiency in lab tests. They also had a panel of 10 kid testers try the masks out for fit and comfort.

What was The New York Times' first choice?

The Enro Kids Face Mask was chosen due to its machine washable filter (a hard-to-find feature), coverage, and breathability.

I was convinced by the review and ordered a few of these for my daughter to try. However, since the Times rated it as number one, the company has been inundated with orders. You may find these are out of stock or slow to ship. I placed my order over two weeks ago, and it still hasn't shipped out.

Toddler Pick: Crayola Masks

The Times guide listed Crayola as one of the best masks for toddlers. They say older children found the fit to be too small.

However, Crayola was the first mask my school-age daughter found to be comfortable (she liked the adjustable straps) and she had no trouble with the fit.

Budget Pick: Old Navy

This is the first face mask I bought for my daughter to wear last spring. It's a great price at $12.50 for a pack of five. However, she found the pleated style difficult to wear and without adjustable ear straps, we couldn't get the fit right.

But they've upgraded their version since then and added ear loops for a better fit. For a budget choice, you may want to give these a try.

Other top choices

Some other top picks in the guide are Happy Masks with filtration and Athleta Girl Adjustable Made to Move. As of Monday, the Happy Masks website says they are sold out and in the process of restocking.

What about KN95 and N95 masks?

Don't expect your child to wear an adult one-size-fits-all. If you're looking for an N95 mask, The Times recommends the 4CAir AireTrust Nano Mask for Kids.

Adam Ratner, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital told NBC News that kids could wear N95 masks safely, as long as they fit properly, but he doesn't think they need to.

And Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital told NBC young kids are mouth breathers, which means the K95 mask can get wet when worn for extended periods. They may need to change out their K95 mask at lunch to keep it dry.

Are masks safe for children to wear all day?

Though I have seen many parents in my Chicago suburb relieved to hear that schools would have universal masking this fall, I have also heard quite a few rumblings from some that don't want their kids in masks.

To the parents that want universal masking, it only makes sense to take a simple preventative measure against the rising Covid cases (many in children) and the more transmissible Delta variant. Especially since kids under 12 aren't eligible for the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable.

However, the parents that do not want to send their children to school have expressed concerns such as, masks can hinder a child's development, make it hard to breathe, and force them to breathe in their own expelled carbon dioxide.

But what's the truth? What do doctors say about the safety of mask-wearing for kids?

Experts weigh in on mask-wearing

According to Kimberly M. Dickinson, MD, MPH & Theresa W. Guilbert, MD, MS, FAAP masks are breathable, "masks are made from breathable materials that will not block the oxygen your child needs. Masks will not affect your child's ability to focus or learn in school."

As for breathing in carbon dioxide, the experts say that isn't possible.

"Carbon dioxide molecules are very tiny, even smaller than respiratory droplets. They cannot be trapped by breathable materials like cloth or disposable masks. In fact, surgeons wear tight-fitting masks all day as part of their jobs, without any harm."

Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist and chief operating officer of the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team (IMPACT) and mother of two, told WTTW Chicago wearing masks can help keep kids safe when they return to the classroom:

"Masks make a big difference in perception of risk for kids, particularly when you’re looking at attending in-person school. Swapping air indoors without masks is the highest risk and the more people you bring into a setting, the more risk involved, and a lot of that risk can be mitigated with masking.”

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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