How to choose a mask for diving

Some practical tips and advice

Once you’ve learned to dive then it won’t be long before you want to start collecting your own equipment. To buy everything can be very costly so it is common to start small and build up slowly over time. For certain items, like your BCD for example, you may benefit from gaining some experience first. Try diving with a few different types and discuss different options with other divers and professionals before making a purchase. Where many people chose to start is with a mask.

Start small

The diver’s mask covers the eyes and nose, allowing the diver to see whilst preventing water from entering the nose. Usually the mask will consist of a rigid plastic frame supporting one or two lenses. There will be a soft silicone ‘skirt’ which makes a (hopefully) water-tight seal against the dive’s face. Lastly, a strap – made of silicone or neoprene – to hold it in place.

Rather obviously, a mask needs to fit the face of its user rather well. If it is the wrong shape or size then it will not adequately seal against the face. In this case the mask will continually flood with water.

There are many different features from one mask to another, and in this post we will not discuss all variations which you will come across. Instead I wanted to start by focusing on just a few key features.

Trial and Error

Since every face is different there is a wide range of shapes and styles available for diving masks. It is very common that the first few masks you will use will not be perfect for your face. Dive centres need to keep a selection of masks which are good ‘general-all-rounders’. This means they will fit most people well enough, but it’s unlikely you’ll fall in love with one of these.

Get your own!

Owning your own mask provides huge benefits to you when you are first starting to dive. It is normal, as a new diver, to feel some nerves and trepidation during your first few dives. Having a poorly fitting mask which is uncomfortable and/or lets in lots of water can be a real hindrance to your development as a diver. This is because you will be so preoccupied with your mask that you are unable to focus on fine-tuning your skills, relaxing and enjoying your dive. This is why it is very beneficial to consider buying your first mask early on in your diving ‘career’.

There is lots of variation in masks on the market, making it quite confusing to know which is right. Hopefully the advice in this post will help you to feel comfortable trying on a selection and making an informed decision about which is best for you.

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Opaque or Transparent

One big difference between different masks is that the soft skirt – the part which seals against the face – can either be transparent or opaque. Historically opaque masks would be black, but these days there are many colours to choose from. The difference is the amount of light which is let in. Transparent masks allow much more sunlight onto the face, which can create a more open and free sensation to the user. This is often desirable for new divers, who may feel less ‘boxed-in’ than when diving with an opaque mask.

Opaque masks may feel rather confining when you first try one on, but once you are in the water you will quickly realise that you only pay attention to the view you have through the lenses.  Your brain tunes out the rest; so this drawback of the opaque mask quickly becomes mute.

The main drawback of the transparent masks is that they can let in too much light. When diving on a sunny day in clear water (desired conditions for most divers!) then this can create problems. Sunlight will often shine through the transparent skirt and reflect on the lenses creating a glare obstructing the divers view. Once you first notice this glare it becomes absolutely impossible to ignore!

Shape and fit

Most masks come with either transparent or opaque skirts, so this feature needn’t influence your decision regarding the model. The most important feature to consider here is the shape of the skirt, and to some extent – the internal volume of the mask.

To find the right fit there is a simple test which is very widely known among divers. For many divers this is the only test known for checking the proper fit of a mask. This test involves placing the mask over your face – without securing the strap – and then inhaling through the nose. This creates suction which holds the mask onto the face. the teory is that a mask which fits will stick well. One which does not fit will not make a seal against your face this way.

The unfortunate truth here is that this test alone is rather inadequate. You can try it for yourself: next time you visit your local dive shop try on all of the masks they have available. According to this test, probably at least 80% of the masks will “fit”. The problem here is that this test involves forcing the mask to fit. When you are diving you will not want to keep negative pressure within the mask – this is uncomfortable. You need a mask which still touches your face even if there is no suction holding it in place.

A better way…?

A better place to start is to orient your face upwards and simply place the mask in position over your eyes and nose. Again, don’t secure the strap.  Have a second person walk around you to see if the mask is touching your face on all sides. If it is touching your face all the way around then this mask has a shape similar to the form of your face. This is what you want!

Do you see some gaps?

If there are only very small gaps at the top or bottom of the mask then try securing the strap lightly to see if this fixes the problem. You should not need to pull the mask strap very tight at all! If the gaps are at the sides of the mask then put that mask down – it is too big for you.

Note: Some masks are designed for particularly small faces (for children, for example) and so be sure that your eyebrows are covered by the mask as well. If the skirt of the mask crosses your eyebrow then you will not get a good seal against your face.

Once you’ve found a mask which touches your face all the way around with little or no tension holding it in place then you can double check by doing the suction test described above. Whilst inhaling and drawing the mask tightly to your face you should feel a vacuum, with no streams of cold air coming in from any edge.

Big nose?

This is not the final test, however. One common problem which people encounter is that the mask has too small an internal volume. Many people have a pronounced bridge between the nose and forehead. If you have this then you will frequently encounter problems with the mask pressing into this part of your face. This can be quite painful by the end of a day of diving.

Another problem could be from having a large nose which is perhaps squeezed by a mask with a small nose pocket. Worse still is when the mask presses on the under side of the septum (the part separating the nostrils).

For this reason I suggest wearing the mask for a few minutes while in the shop.  Practice equalising your ears and clearing the mask. You are trying to see if you feel it pressing on any part of your face in any way which could become uncomfortable.

Throughout this whole process, do not neglect the fact that your face will be a different shape when you have a regulator in your mouth. It could be an idea to bring a regulator, snorkel or at least a mouthpiece with you when trying masks. This way you can simulate the true form of your face while diving – this is what the mask will have to fit around.

Final note

The final note I wish to make on this subject is actually a repetition of what I said before – your mask should fit without the strap being pulled too tight.

If, when you have secured the strap, the mask does not fall off then it should be tight enough. Fixing problems of improper fit by simply pulling the strap tighter might fix the problem temporarily, but you risk causing damage to the mask at the point where the strap connects to the mask.

Some masks are quite strong and sturdy here, but for many masks on the market this is the weakest point by far! Putting too much tension on the strap will destroy this part it in no time. Besides, a proper fitting mask will often be warped out of shape by being pulled too tight. Often divers pull the mask strap too tight and warp this seal, causing a good fitting mask to flood. Find a good fit and wear it snug – not too tight, not too loose.

Final final note

The mask you spend your money on has to look cool, too (you can’t go wrong with black).

Hope this helps.

Happy diving!

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