Four ways to save money on face masks as bandanas, t-shirts, no longer acceptable

Some of the ways people can save money are by buying in bulk, and washing and reusing medical masks.
Some of the ways people can save money are by buying in bulk, and washing and reusing medical masks. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Now part of our everyday wear, face masks are yet another recurring expense for Kiwi households, along with rising prices for petrol, housing and everyday goods.

But as there are a wide range of face masks available at different prices, there are ways to save money.  

From February 3, tougher face mask rules apply under the red traffic light setting, to help reduce the spread of Omicron.  Face coverings have to be an "actual mask": bandanas and other makeshift face masks, such as scarves, or t-shirts pulled over the face, no longer comply.  

Workers who are legally mandated to be vaccinated must wear a "medical-grade mask," such as a "type 2R" or "level 2 mask" or above, or a "blue medical grade mask", while working in public-facing roles," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in January.

Acknowledging that face masks vary in quality, price and availability, a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub while for some Kiwis, meeting the cost can be a challenge, "any mask is better than no mask".

"When worn properly [ie. covering the mouth and nose], all masks reduce the risk of being infected with the virus and passing it to others, including fabric and medical masks, the spokesperson said.

Newshub asked the Ministry of Health and co-founder of Taupo Budget Busters, Isobial Jackson, for their top suggestions on how Kiwis can choose the right face mask for their needs, whilst saving money on this recurring cost.

1. Get the right mask for your needs  

Before spending money on face masks, it's a good idea to weigh up the risk of being infected, and passing on the virus to others, against the level of protection offered by different types of face masks. 

Choice of mask will depend on many factors, such as the level of face-to-face contact with others, including at work, socially and on public transport.

Among the types of face masks available are reusable cloth (fabric) masks, medical masks, and particulate respirator masks.

Reusable cloth masks are made from fabric that can be washed and reused, putting them among the cheapest options available.  Their level of protection varies according to the style and material used, including thickness.

"Making your own mask is a lower-cost option, but it should include three layers to offer the recommended level of protection," the Ministry of Health spokesperson said.

A certified well-fitting medical mask is considered by the Ministry of Health to offer a "good level of protection". Designed for single use by health care workers and also used by the public, they're described as "a blue pleated rectangle, with a nose wire and elastic ear loops" and are widely available at retail outlets, including supermarkets.

Disposable particulate respirator masks, such as N95, KN95 and P2, generally offer a high level of protection when used correctly, but are also among the most expensive. 

They're identified by which international regulatory standards they meet, (N95 is a US standard, KN95 is a Chinese standard, and P2 is a New Zealand/Australian respiratory standard).

Zuru Edge business development manager Josh Rippin, said medical masks (e.g. FFP2, P2, N95, KN95 and KN94), were considered to provide better protection than cloth masks, due to their higher level of filtration.  Providing they're not used in a medical setting, he suggests people keep a few masks on hand and rotate them, wearing each one once, before letting it breathe for five to seven days.

2. Get the right fit for your face

It’s also important that masks are fitted snug and close to the face.

A well-fitted face mask helps to reduce the risk of virus transmission. 

P2 and N95 masks need to be fitted properly, and all workforces using these masks, including healthcare and border workers, have proper fit-testing.

Wearers of other types of face masks can also improve the fit and protection of their mask.

"[Examples are] wearing a disposable medical mask under a fabric mask, or if using a mask with a nose wire, pinch the wire so the mask moulds to the bridge of your nose," the Ministry of Health spokesperson said.

3. Compare prices  

Prices of face masks vary widely, according to quality and availability.

Disposable medical-grade masks, such as those sold at retail outlets including supermarkets, are a widely available option. On Tuesday, a box of 25 'Health Warrior' 3-ply, type 2R masks retails for $7.70 (31c each) at Countdown. 'Better Living' 3-ply disposable face masks 10-pack retail for $5.99 (60c each) at Pak'nSave.

Co-founder of Taupo Budget Busters, Isobial Jackson suggests shoppers look at websites and retail outlets such as Crackerjack, Warehouse Stationery and hardware stores, whose prices may be cheaper than other outlets. 

Families could consider buying medical masks and/or respirator masks in bulk rather than in single packets.

"I would go in with a couple of people (family members or friends) and get a big box together," Jackson said.

Price hikes have been occurring across many types of filtered masks, price comparison website PriceSpy told Newshub.  In one example, the 'Pacsafe Reusable ViralOff face mask' cost $34 on Tuesday, whereas in April 2021, the price was $24.65 (38 percent less).

Price hikes could be due to a number of factors, such as increased demand, higher operational costs and shipping costs, making it even more important to shop around, PriceSpy New Zealand country manager, Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett said.

4. Consider washing and reusing single-use masks

In line with research showing blue surgical masks and other medical grade masks could be washed and re-worn up to ten times, Isobial Jackson said this made them more cost-effective to buy.

At the end of each day, Jackson puts used masks into a lightweight bag on a hook in the laundry.  Once or twice a week, they're put through a hot or warm antibacterial wash (e.g. using napisan) and hung out to dry.  A vivid could be used to mark each use.

"They come out perfectly fine…you can use those up to ten times before you have to toss them," Jackson added.

Co-founder of Budget Busters Isobial Jackson suggests washing disposable medical masks and using up to ten times to increase usage (therefore reducing cost).
Co-founder of Budget Busters Isobial Jackson suggests washing disposable medical masks and using up to ten times to increase usage (therefore reducing cost). Photo credit: Supplied/Getty Images.

People visiting Government buildings and other public facilities, as well as supermarkets and vaccination and testing sites, may find free disposable face masks available to use.

More information on face masks, including how to wear a face mask safely can be found on the Ministry of Health website. 

In addition to using face masks, the Ministry of Health continues to urge all eligible Kiwis to get vaccinated, including those now due for a booster dose.  Physical distancing and handwashing are also important to maintain, as they limit the spread of the virus.