Pollution protection face masks

...In which I buy one of those ridiculous masks you see hoards of Japanese tourists wearing and brave walking down the Kings Road in it...

I often have ideas that I think might be brilliant, or read about something that I think would be interesting to experience and follow it through just to see, usually returning sheepishly to the house to hear my children chant with glee 'we told you so'.

I have jumped off telegraph posts, walked barefoot on fire and been spat on by shamans in the Brazilian jungle. All very character forming.

Anyway, last week, thinking about air purity and how it is fast vanishing in the cities of the world, I decided to experiment with the white face masks everyone has been wearing in China and Japan for some time. Even when they're away from home turf, Japanese tourists in particular rarely seem to take them off. You meet them in the Vatican, on the white sandy beaches of the Maldives and I have even encountered them on the slopes of Macchu Picchu, breathing steadily through their purifying filters. What I have never personally dreamt of doing till this moment is copying them. But, in this increasingly toxic world, it's starting to look like the only way forward.

Face mask experiment: Wearing it in London

So, dear reader, I went on to Amazon, and spent a few pounds investing in my first white face mask (actually it was a pack of 5, so quite a bargain) which was offering to protect me 99.9% successfully from all smog, bacteria, viruses and chemical pollutants.

Three days later it had arrived and I was ready for my first perambulation. I decided to stick to my home ground. I would walk determinedly along the Kings Road, from Worlds End to Sloane Square and report back on the experience.

It was mortifying. There truly is no other word for it. I stepped out bravely, my courage high, but by the time I had gone a mere 5 minutes I was regretting the length of my intended progress. People stared. They stared quite a lot actually. They obviously thought I was mad, or ridiculous, or probably both. One small child at the bus stop said loudly: 'Why is she wearing that mask?' Everyone else in the queue turned to look. And they weren't particularly friendly looks. Perhaps it's just about being different.

I wanted to explain, I was doing it for their own education, possibly contributing helpfully to the literature on health protection. But actually with a large white mask across your nose and mouth, what actually comes out is muffled. They can't hear you.

Face masks for air pollution - London's new must have
Face masks for air pollution - London's new must have

I felt vulnerable, which is not a feeling I usually experience. I also felt stupid - a bit like I would if I had put on a Mickey Mouse costume with no mask so everyone knew who I was and walked the same distance, allowing people to whisper and snigger at my expense. I hated the experience, and ripped the face mask off as fast as possible when I reached Sloane Square, disappearing thankfully into the anonymous crowds of the Peter Jones Store.

Face mask experiment: the results

When I took the mask off and examined it, you could see that even during the brief half an hour I had been wearing it, its pristine whiteness had turned a slightly grimy grey. So pollution particles must get picked up in it, but whether its 100% or less, I really couldn't tell.

When I got safely home again, I researched the topic a bit more on the computer (should probably have done this before I started). I looked globally. It seems to be a trend that's taking off big time. There are literally hundreds of designs, styles and colours, some of them extremely funky. The cheap white ones that you see around everywhere are the bog standard version and I should think you get what you pay for protection wise. Not much really.

What to look for when you're choosing a face mask

If you are going to invest, spend a bit more and make sure you check your chosen mask's anti-haze number. The higher it is, the more it's going to protect you. If it says N95 on it, it's going to filter out 95% of airborne particulates.


Face masks may as well look good
Face masks may as well look good

This is my favourite mask.  It's more expensive, but if I am shortly going to have to wear an anti-pollution mask on a daily basis, I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Why not really stir the fashion rangers of Chelsea? And think of the attention I will get in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds or the streets of Edinburgh...  Made of silicon, it will last and last. It is really airtight. I can put my hands over the filters and then I can't breathe at all, so no air creeps in at the edges. The filters start off pristine white, but after extended exposure to England's dirty air, they go grey, at which point you know it's time to change them.

More from our series on air and pollution: