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The PPE I use

Caleb's PPE

Table of Contents


I have decided to share my impressions of the masks I have tried over the last several months, and the "framework" I use for deciding what mask to wear for a given activity. I hope it will be useful for someone.

Disclaimer: Why You Should Not Trust Me

There are many reasons to stop reading here and continue with the rest of your day:

  • I'm not a doctor
  • I'm not a virologist, or scientist of any kind
  • I'm not an HVAC, air handling, or occupational safety specialist

Essentially if you would not be comfortable operating a hand built automobile, then please do not read on. I claim no special training, experience, or expertise as it relates to protecting individuals from communicable disease. The Wirecutter has a guide for respirator masks.

Obligatory Expression of Exasperation at the Ongoing Winter in America

As of July 2020 the United States of America has surpassed the levels of infection seen in the Northeast during the first months of the pandemic. This national failure is staggering, and I struggle every day to attempt to process what is happening. The song Winter in America seems far too relevant to this current time and place; I pray to see you all in the springtime.

About Me

In describing my choices for my Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) some information about my physical appearance might be helpful:

  • I am a Fairly average height and weight for an American cis-gendered man
  • I have a high nose bridge, and high cheekbones
  • I have a somewhat floppy right ear

Mental Framework: Intensity and Concern

I think the novelty of our current crisis can be paralyzing; feeling the need to reconsider the estimation of risk for the dozens of decisions we face each day can be entirely overwhelming. I have found that having a basic framework for thinking

My very simplistic model of the world is motivated by two questions:

  • How concerned am I about where I am going today?
  • How hard will I be breathing?

To which I can answer:

  • Medium, or high levels of concern
  • Low, regular, or high levels of physical intensity

Having a mask choice for each combination helps me to turn nebulous concern about the unknown likelihood of contracting a potentially fatal virus into a mechanical decision to grab one bag of PPE or another. Without use of a professional filtration system such as a half face respirator, I have found it to be impractical to maintain a high level of physical activity while maintaining ultra high confidence in the seal of the mask. The scenarios I have decided to address are:

  • Low intensity and high level of concern
  • Regular intensity and medium level of concern
  • Regular intensity and high level of concern
  • High intensity and medium level of concern

This is a conscious decision to eliminate certain classes of activities for the foreseeable future; and I am extremely fortunate to move some of the outdoor activities I love indoors for the duration.

Scenario: Low Intensity and High Level of Concern

On days when I am feeling quite concerned about the situation outside, willing to spend more time with adjustments, and willing to essentially sacrifice the ability to talk then I'll don a Gill Mask fitted with Primal Filters. The Gill Mask employs a SCUBA-like design for the mask and is unique, at least among the masks that I have tried, by using a small plastic frame to hold filter material that you cut yourself. In my experience a filter composed of multiple layers creates too much back pressure in the mask which forces air out of the sides of the mask. It is my hope that the Primal Filters strike the right balance between filtration capability, ease of acquisition, and supported airflow. I also find the fact that the Primal Filters don't have vent holes helpful when cutting out a portion for the mask.

I do find it very difficult to perform my regular activities while wearing the Gill Mask. It may be due to the geometry of my face, or challenges keeping my facial muscles relaxed, but I have yet to successfully perform the work of climbing more than a few flights of stairs without noticeable leaks. When standing around, however, I find the Gill Mask to have an excellent seal; the quality of the majority of the seal makes leaks both quite noticeable, and a little frightening to be honest. The bulbous mask also makes me feel a bit too close to my fellow primate for my taste. If I am scared of leaving my apartment, then I am going to don the Gill Mask; and I probably won't be walking outside building where I live.

I wear a DSPTCH face covering over the Gill Mask, and I have had some success using a CPAP mask sealant to help improve my perception of the seal quality.

For those with smaller faces, a better fit is probably found in the mask from O2 Canada; I prefer the sport strap option for securing it to my face.

Scenario: Regular Intensity and Medium Level of Concern

On a day when I am willing to accept our current reality, I will generally don the Primal Mask 2.0 as my inner mask, and I will wear a mask from Inside Line Equipment over the Primal Mask 2.0. I find the amount of airflow through the Primal Mask 2.0 to be entirely adequate during regular activities; the adjustable ear loops to be both effective and comfortable; and the internal plastic frame does help to keep the mask off of my face. I am able to maintain a very low level of glasses fogging, which I assume corresponds to seal leakage, while walking up several flights of stairs. The Primal Mask 2.0 does not have valves, so I believe the outer mask from Inside Line Equipment is purely to assuage my paranoia.

Scenario: Regular Intensity and High Level of Concern

If it bothers you to watch multiple unmasked people stride into your apartment building confident that their phone call was important enough to justify peppering the indoors with their insides, then I would recommend checking the mail in a RZ Mask with a Primal Mask 2.0.

Scenario: High Intensity and Medium Level of Concern

I run essentially all my errands on a bicycle. When I am heading out, I will generally don an RZ Mask with a Primal Mask 2.0 to cover the vents on the mask. While I'm on the bike I am usually trying to gulp down air, so the I really appreciate how much air I'm able to pull through the RZ Mask. I find that the double head straps really help keep the mask in place. The mask is more of a beak than a bulb, so I feel a little like I'm wearing a Plague Mask which I for some reason find a little more aesthetically pleasing than the Gill Mask.

Epilogue: Patching Your PPE

I always seem to have problems with mask fit. Maybe it's my face, perhaps it's an inability to relax my face while wearing a mask, or perhaps I'm simply not patient enough to obtain the theoretical fit that seems always just out of reach. Having grown up in a tinkering part of the United States, I set about seeing how I could ruin a mask. I often have trouble keeping ear loops on both ears, and I have found a simple ironing board cover fasteners to be effective anchors just above my ears. I have sometimes found success improving mask fit over my nose by adding an aftermarket aluminum nose bridge or two to be quite helpful; I use a little bit of Gear Aid Tape to cover the aluminum and help keep the strips from peeling off the mask. A stronger plastic toggle is also a frequent addition.

Epilogue: Wet Heat, Dry Heat, and UV Cleaning

With respect to cleaning masks, I think we are all on our own. I don't have access to any exotic equipment like an autoclave, or a hydrogen peroxide vaporizer; and manufacturers, understandably I suppose, seem to discourage many disinfection methods. For the first several months of the crisis masks would go straight into the oven for 30 minutes at 170 Degrees Fahrenheit after each wear. Given how the pandemic has unfolded in the United States I am trying to prepare for perhaps two years of daily mask wearing. I now drop my keys and wallet into a UV sterilization box. I use a baby bottle sterilizer on my masks, face coverings, and sunglasses. Shortages of isopropyl alcohol led me to purchase a handheld steam mop to clean frequently used surfaces. If alcohol shortages return, I may employ a UV light wand for cleaning complex surfaces.

Epilogue: Door Openers

For manipulating doors, I use either the EDC COVID Key from Recycled Firefighter, or the Safetouch Multitool which has a convenient cutout for a key ring.

Epilogue: Mark I Equipment

When this crisis first began, I wore a washable cloth mask from North St. Bags, or Inside Line Equipment over a mask from The Cambridge Mask Company. I found my Cambridge Mask Company mask to be spectacular when dealing with wildfire smoke here in California, however, due to global demand and a desire to avoid waiting for overseas shipments I decided to look for alternate mask suppliers. For those with the time to wait for a mask from The Cambridge Mask Company, I highly recommend their product.

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