Unmasked A Modern Look at Scuba Masks And Snorkel Masks
Today we’re going to talk about Scuba and Snorkel Masks, which also hold true for Freediving.
Have you ever been to a resort where someone just hands you a snorkel mask our a dive mask out of a bucket and tells you to go and enjoy the water? For some that can be a wonderful eye popping experience and for others it can be painful, irritating, uncomfortable or downright unnerving.
Today we are going to discuss some of the key features, technologies, materials, styles and levels of comfort you can come to expect from a good quality scuba or snorkel mask.
Some would argue that the more expensive the mask is, the better it will fit you or the better quality it is. This isn’t quite the case.
The best mask on the market is the mask that fits your face first and foremost.
Factors that affect the fit of the mask are face shapes, facial hair, buckle or strap design, single or double lens, type of mask skirt material, lens glass and frame shape to name a few.
Generally speaking the bigger the face the larger the mask skirt and frame will have to be. Someone with a narrow face like a woman or small child can fit a small to mid size frame, while most average size faces would benefit from a standard fit, larger faces may require a wide fitting mask.
There are a handful of brands who offer small/medium fitted masks, as well as wide fitting masks, while the norm is to make a mask for the average face.
Once you’ve determined the size of mask you may need its time to weigh options, for example, if you have facial hair, you may favour a stiffer mask skirt with a frameless designed that will sit slightly higher above the moustache versus one that lays across the hair preventing a full seal against the upper lip and under the nose.
The Moustache: Moustache divers or snorkelers can be one of the more challenging people to fit, so we often gravitate to a few good “moustache masks”. These masks are shorter and stiffer in the upper lip area and aren’t as affected by the facial hair which can break the seal of a softer skirted mask.
Avoid Purge Valves! Rather than going for a proper fit, some people choose to go for a mask with a purge valve in the nose that allows you to simply blow out to evacuate water, however, we believe a purge valve mask is an excuse for an ill-fitting mask. They also tend to fail over time having the valve curl or simply fall out causing the mask to fill up with water, so for this reason we simply don’t recommend or endorse the use of purge valves in masks, but are happy to add one into any mask you desire should you want one.
Wearing a Skirt?
Guys and girls both wear skirts when wearing a mask. So what’s the difference in mask skirts? Mask skirts can be made of a number of different materials including Rubber, TPR (transparent rubber), PVC, Silite, Silflex, Silter, Silicone, Crystal Silicone, Liquid Silicone, Liquid Crystal Silicone, Gummybear Silicone and more.
Rubber was the most common type of material throughout the infancy of snorkeling and scuba because it was inexpensive, created a seal, was black which helped the person see clearer without glare and refraction of light, but it was not a product that had offered a lot of longevity, however, in the late 1970’s silicone started to become more popular due to the fact that it didn’t break down in the sunlight, was more comfortable and chlorine resistant.
Alternatively TPR, PVC, Silite, Silflex, Silter are all harder skirted alternatives that cost less, are replaced more and are often found in the department stores. Some manufactures promote a silcone mask/snorkel combo, however, a mask can be class as “silicone” with as little as 5% in the skirt.
You can tell how much silicone is in the mask vs. plastic or other materials by holding the clear skirt up to the light. If the mask has an opaque colour that looks “clumpy” or more white it isn’t pure silicone. If the mask skirt has an odour the smells like chemicals, its not pure silicone.
Many of our dive mask brands offer both “sport” quality and “dive” quality. Both can be suitable for snorkeling and in some cases diving too, however, fit and comfort are the 2 most important factors affecting your decision to purchase one over the other.
Pure Silicone mask skirts are still the most comfortable, last the longest, do not break down with repeated saltwater or chlorine immersion and are UV resistant.
Silicone masks can come in skirts that are acid washed to be perfectly transparent or they can be coloured black or other unique colours. At DDS we prefer black silicone because it offers better vision through the process of eliminating excessive amounts of light which flow in through the normally clear skirt and then cause glare and refraction of light when compared to their black skirted brethren who provide eye and glare protection and less overall strain and eye fatigue.
Black skirted masks also age better maintaining their black colour, whereas clear skirted masks only stay clear for a little while, that is until the uv rays, dirt, sand, rubber and other factors start to cause a yellowing of the skirt and they become opaque over a rather short period of time, meanwhile the black skirted mask is still looking as fresh and good as it did the day it was purchased.
Regardless of the mask you choose it’s all about fit and comfort. You can read review after review, but the mask should be fitted by a professional who understands your needs, wants and has a good selection.
We sell virtually every brand of mask, but have cherry picked among our entire staff the masks we feel to be the best fitting masks on the market.
Keep the gimmicks to a minimum.
Make sure when you’re wearing your mask you can equalize your ears by squeezing your nose pocket, this will ensure you can get to the nose pocket when you need to.
Make sure the mask strap isn’t too tight. A proper fitting mask only needs to have the strap snug, not tight because the water pressure is going to keep the mask on your face for the most part too.
Make sure the mask doesn’t sit against the brow area putting pressure on it if its a 2 lens mask (men generally have a protruding brow).
Make sure the nose pocket doesn’t dig into the bridge of the nose.
Wear the mask strap just over top of the ears centering it around the middle 1/3 of the skull. Wearing it too high can cause the mask to push up under the nose causing chaffing and making it raw over time, so really pay attention to centering it and keeping it adjusted comfortably.
When wearing the mask you can check for proper width by looking in a mirror. You don’t want to see the skirt too narrow that it sits on the eye, but you also don’t want it so wide that it lets water in through the top or sides.
Breath in through your nose without using the strap, see that the mask sits comfortably on the face. If it does, put the strap on, snug it up comfortably and with the mask against the face exhale. The exhaled air should go out the bottom of the mask not the top of the head by the temples or above the eyes.
High or Low Volume? Which is Better?
Low Volume is always best. The lenses sit closer to your eyes. There’s a smaller airspace to equalize the masks internal airspace which is something you’ll notice when you go down on breath hold or on scuba. With increased pressure the mask will suck to your face more and more and more eventually causing pain and discomfort. To avoid this you’ll need to equalize the airspace by simply blowing some air through your nose into the mask to keep it from squeezing down.
Lower volume masks are more comfortable and are easier to clear water out of as well. Imagine a big round window shaped mask and how big and how much water can fill that mask up. Now picture a streamlined mask that has a similar surface area to that of a pair of swim goggles but with an enclosed nose so you can blow into it.
Which mask is going to be easier to clear the water out of ? The one with more or less water in it? If you guessed less water in it you’re right. The smaller the masks overall internal volume the easier its going to be to blow the air out of it.
Frame or No Frame?
Divers have long gravitated towards plastic framed masks that press the glass, plastic and frame all into one package with a lens retainer. They’re durable, comfortable, most popular.
Frameless masks are a more modern concept that has less overall parts and simplified construction by simply moulding the silicone frame over the tempered glass lenses and bonding the silicone to the skirt.
The Different Mask Lenses
The market for different dive lenses have changed a lot since the initial introduction of simple tempered glass or polycarbonate lenses.
Tempered Glass lenses are still the industry standard because of their durability, relative cost effectiveness and the fact that they don’t shatter inwards due to pressure. They can break like anything else, but generally the glass will stay together.
Tempered Glass is durable, they aren’t affected by scratches in the water, but they do have a greenish tinge to the glass which cuts back on light transmission.
Polycarbonate is plastic, scratches very easily and not suitable for scuba diving or much more than pool playing. They’re typical of your department store masks which are cheap and not designed to last.
Ultraclear Glass Lenses introduced by Atomic Aquatics
Ultraclear glass is an optical quality glass with exceptional clarity and high light transmission, with no colour distortion.
Standard float glass (tempered glass) lets through approximately 86% of the available light but UltraClear lenses can allow up to 92% light transmittance. Combine that with the increased colour vibrancy and clarity and you’ll never want to dive with a standard lens again.
ARC Lenses or Anti Reflective Coating Lenses Introduced by Atomic Aquatics
Between 4-14% of light can be reflected back or “lost” by the standard “green float glass” mask lenses used by the more traditional mask makers. ARC technology lenses are especially important for SCUBA divers underwater, where available light is quickly absorbed by the surrounding water because they help amplify available light.
Atomic Aquatics ARC Technology to reduce reflected light and actually increase the amount of available light transmitted to a diver’s eyes. The result is a greatly improved transmission of 98% of available light, compared to a loss of more than 14% of light with standard green “float” glass used on the majority of masks on the market.
ARC uses a multi-layer metal oxide coating process applied to both sides of the UltraClear lenses. This allows more light to enter the mask by reducing light reflections off the inside and outside surface of the lens. The metal oxide coating is only a few microns thick.
Anti-Reflective Coatings or ARC is a multi-layer metal oxide coating process applied to both sides of the Ultraclear lenses. This allows more light to enter the mask by reducing light reflection off the inside and outside surface of the lends. Clearer, crisper vision. Reduces eyestrain, glare and prevents ghost images on the viewing area of the lens. A must for night diving and limited visibility conditions and underwater photographers.
Some Divers like the idea of mirrored lenses, however, they reflect back at the fishlife and can cause unwanted confrontations. They also hide the divers eyes, which are essential when assessing diver comfort underwater, so for this reason we’d suggest staying away from mirrored lenses.
Types of Mask Straps
Most mask straps are made of the same material as the mask. They’re designed to fit comfortably, not overly tight around the back of the wearers head and have side adjusters that allow you to often times pull the mask strap by tabs to tighten it.
The straps can pull hair or can tend to be uncomfortable. One way we fix this is by adding a neoprene mask strap backing or replacing the entire strap with a neoprene adjust-a-strap which uses Velcro on the sides and neoprene on the back of the head.
You don’t need hair to enjoy a neoprene mask strap, they’re the best option for ease of donning or taking your mask off, plus they also float a little bit, so if you drop you mask into the water you may have faster response as it may not sink immediately .
We can get a number of masks with prescription lenses. We carry lenses in + or – diopters, as well as custom ground lenses for people needing lenses for different pupil distances and special features.
The costs of lenses for negative diopters are very reasonable. Positive diopters are more expensive. Standard bio-focal lenses are also available.
We generally recommend TUSA or Atomic for prescription lenses. They’re easy to install and the masks are the best quality you can buy.
When purchasing a mask consider the fact that this product will last you 20-30 years if you look after it. My personal TUSA mask is one I’ve had since 1996. Dan had a 30 year old TUSA mask. When you buy quality products from reputable manufacturers who make their own masks (NOT OEM with a Log slapped on) you purchase a product that is going to have parts and service around for years (or decades) to come.
Mask clips can commonly break if dropped or stepped on. Lenses can chip, mask skirt scan rip, lens retainer clips can break if you’re cleaning the mask and mask skirt on a regular basis.
Brands like TUSA, Atomic Aquatics, Mares Diving, Problue and Scubapro keep a range of clips and replacement parts in stock.
Pre-cleaning Your Mask
Pre-clean your mask with toothpaste rubbed on the inside of the glass and take a toothbrush with mild abrasive and brush the inside glass to remove a protective silicone residue that is tacked on the inside. You can also carefully burn it off with a flame if you have a steady hand and trust yourself around silicone.
Pre-cleaning the mask will help prevent fogging and will give you a better chance of fog-free diving.
Defogging Your Mask
Mask defog is your friend. Not because we’re a dive store, but because you don’t want bacteria ridden saliva in your mask that you may or may not fully rinse out. We’ve seen divers with eye infections from using the communal “spit bucket” on the dive boats down south where 10-20 divers are all spitting in their mask and then rinsing in a communal bucket.
Commercial Mask Defog is awesome! It lasts years and years despite the small affordable 2oz bottle it comes in. McNett Sea Drops and McNett Sea Gold are the best defogs we’ve used. No bacteria or eye irritation and you also don’t have as much black mould or bacteria growing in your mask after 6-12 months of using it vs. spit.
Spitting in your mask is a good temporary solution, but defog will prevent things from growing in the mask and give you the best fog free solution.
To use your defog properly though follow these steps.
- Apply defog to mask lens dry 2-3 drops per lens or 5-6 drops overall if single lens max.
- Leave defog on the mask until you’re ready to hit the water
- Rinse defog off with your finger and water
- Put mask directly on your face or keep filled with water until ready to wear
- Keep mask on face, do not take off and let it air dry
- If taking mask off fill it up with water and leave lenses wet, don’t air dry
Maintenance For Your Mask
Your mask over time may get dirty, mildewed or saturated with salt crystals or sand which can get between the lenses. Every 1-2 years or sooner, you should consider taking your mask apart and with hot water, some dish soap and a toothbrush, gently rinse and scrub every bit of the mask frame, skirt, lenses, and lens retainer clips (This isn’t possible with Frameless masks which do not come apart).
To learn more about care and maintenance of your scuba and snorkeling gear take our PADI Equipment Specialist Course.
The best mask on the market is the mask that makes you feel like its a part of your face, it fits naturally, it doesn’t hit off the brow, press on the bridge of the nose and doesn’t need to be overtightened. It can come with a range of different lenses and price points, but at the end of the day its the mask that feels the best and has the features you want that’s the right one.
While technologies change, the fit criteria should all the same. Comfort, ease of adjustment, ease of clearing because its low volume and it should look quasi-stylin’.
Recreational, Cave & Technical Diving Instructor
NAUI Cave & Trimix Instructor 45416
TDI Trimix Instructor 4767
PADI MSDT 207233
SDI Instructor 4767
IDREO Rebreather Instuctor (CCR)
Dan’s Dive Shop, Inc.