Choosing a Mask

This post is aimed primarily at new divers and will be the first in a series on choosing equipment. It’s always a good idea to discuss equipment choices with your instructor. The retail staff at your local dive shop can be a big help as well. Hopefully this post will provide some things to talk about with them 🙂 I’m going to share some thoughts I have about choosing a mask for diving. What to look for. What kind of choices are out there. Things to think about. Things to be aware of.

When it comes to dive gear in general, what’s most important is fit, comfort, and quality. It pays to buy quality and money spent on that will pay off in the long run. Dive equipment, in general, is built to last and as long as it’s properly cared for and serviced on a regular basis, it will give you years of service.

The first items that someone who is new to scuba diving will purchase are a mask, snorkel, fins and booties. Today we’re going to discuss masks.

Masks have come a long way from the high volume, black rubber, oval-shaped, mask that I started with back in the 70’s, but they all basically still do the same thing… They cover your eyes and nose, providing an air space so that we can see clearly underwater and equalize our ears. A mask is one of your most important purchases as a mask that is uncomfortable or a poor fit can ruin your dive.

Today’s masks come in different designs. You can get single or double lenses, side lenses, black or clear silicone. It should go without saying, but don’t buy a mask made from cheap rubber or PVC with plastic lenses. These are not suitable for scuba diving. 100% Silicone is the material of choice and lenses should be tempered glass. Choose a mask with a wide skirt (the part of the mask that seals against your face). This will create a better seal. Frames are available in a variety of colors.

Volume refers to the size of the airspace within a mask. Some will prefer the increased feeling of openness and greater peripheral vision of a high volume mask. Be aware though that these masks will require more effort to clear, especially when fully flooded. A low volume mask is easier to clear and seal to your face. I recommend staying away from purge valves. Some like them, especially for snorkeling, but I see it as a potential failure point.

Silicone is available in colored (opaque) or clear. Many divers prefer clear silicone (Some people might feel a little claustrophobic I’m told, although I’ve never experienced this myself). Someone who wants more peripheral vision can also opt for a mask with side windows. These are available in both single lens and double lens masks.

Photographers often prefer black silicone based on the theory that blocking light from the sides cuts down on glare and makes it easier to see through the viewfinder of a camera. Clear silicone can discolor over time, especially if stored with rubber. That doesn’t affect using the mask though, just the cosmetics. Both work well so it really boils down to personal preference.

Single lens masks are probably the most common and many people like them. One potential issue is that they generally have a smaller nose pocket, so fit can be an issue. If you feel any pressure at all on your nose when trying on the mask, then a double lens mask could be the solution. Double lens masks have room for a larger nose pocket. You really don’t notice the divider in the middle. No more than the divider in a pair of sunglasses. Your eyes will focus beyond that.

Then we have frameless masks. A single lens is joined directly to the silicone skirt. They are very low volume, lightweight, and flexible. This can be an excellent choice if you can find one that is a good fit.

Let me also mention a bit about coated lenses. Anti-reflective coatings are great for experienced divers. They reduce reflected light and increase transmission… what’s not to like? The problem (especially applicable to students, new divers, and instructors) is that a mirror effect resulting from the coating makes it difficult to see the eyes of the diver wearing the mask. Not being able to see the instructors eyes can be intimidating to students. Not being able to see a students eyes can be problematic for the instructor by making it more difficult to evaluate the students condition.

Now that we’ve discussed different kinds of masks, lets talk about fitting them. When looking at masks, most important is fit and comfort (also true of other gear we will talk about in future blog posts). Choose one that will fit your face and will provide a good seal without the strap. Push the mask against your face creating a vacuum. Make sure that you don’t have any of your hair breaking the seal. If the mask stays in place and no leaks are detected, then it should be a good fit. Without a good fit, the mask will leak!

While trying on the mask, once you’ve determined you have a good seal, then make sure that the mask skirt isn’t digging into your nose and feels comfortable around your upper lip and temples. Also be aware if there are any spots where you feel pressure on your nose or forehead, especially between the eyes. Make sure there is room.

Check that you are able to pinch your nose in order to equalize. If the nose pocket is too big you might have trouble. Now put the mask on fully with the strap. You should get a good fit with minimal strap pressure. Make sure the strap is sitting on crown at the back of your head and not on your ears.

The strap is there to keep the mask from being dislodged. Water pressure should be more than enough to seal the mask against your face if it’s a good fit. Tightening the strap to fix a leaking mask normally backfires and just makes the leak worse as a too-tight strap can distort the skirt!

Your mask will come with a silicone strap. You can replace this strap with a neoprene slap strap or cover that will fit over the silicone strap. You’ll find this to be more comfortable and it will virtually eliminate pulled hair.

Caring for your mask is important. Here are a few tips.

Once you’ve purchased your mask before using it the first time you will need to clean it. Agents used during the manufacturing process end up create a thin film on the lens of the mask. This causes it to fog quite easily. A paste toothpaste or liquid scrub can work. There are also products like Sea Buff, that are sold at most dive shops that will do the trick. Be sure to treat both the inside and outside of the mask lens. It may take more than one application. An old tip was to burn the film off. This is not recommended by manufactures.  Applying a lighter to the glass of a new mask to remove the film has been linked to weakening the lens, causing it to shatter. Using a lighter will void any warranty on the mask. Follow manufactures recommendations when it comes to cleaning.

Hold on to the mask box that your mask comes in. Rinse your mask in fresh water after use. Remember that bugs love silicone so once it’s dry put it away in its box! Keep it out of direct sunlight as much as possible. When it comes to defog a product like Sea Gold goes a long way. Some people use a solution of baby shampoo and a lot of the “old-timers” still just use spit 😉

I hope these tips will help you find the perfect mask! Everyone has a unique face, so take your time and try on several masks. It will be time well spent.