It’s not just avid divers that need to know how to choose a scuba mask. When people take up scuba diving or if they’re planning a vacation to the tropics and plan to do a little snorkelling the first piece of equipment they typically invest in to make either a more enjoyable experience is a decent mask. As you may know most important feature of a good mask is that it fits the individual using it well. But how do you tell if a mask fits before you get it in the water? And, aside from fit, what should one consider when shopping for a new diving mask?
How to Make Sure a Mask Fits
Many people are familiar with the “sniff test” technique of trying on masks. For those that aren’t sure what that is, it basically involves placing the mask against one’s face (ensuring any hair is out of the way) and inhaling through the nose and seeing if the mask stays on without the strap in place. This is an okay place to start. However, you can make most masks that aren’t extremely too large or small stick with this method, so it only rules out the very poor fitting masks and doesn’t much help with finding one that is a good fit.
So what to do? Place the mask you are trying on your face and do NOT inhale through your nose, tilt your head back so that you are looking up at the ceiling. The silicone of the mask should comfortably follow the contours of your face. There should be no significant gaps between your skin and the silicone. If possible, this is best done with a buddy that can visually confirm this for you. If there is much gapping, the mask does not fit and will likely leak.
Other Features and Options
Aside from fit what else does a diver or snorkeler need to look for in a mask?
The internal volume of a mask should be quite low. That means not a lot of space should be present between the mask and your face. A lower volume mask will give you better vision by not blocking a large portion of your field of vision with the silicone skirt, be easier to clear water from and be easier to equalize. The ease of equalization is important to divers and snorkelers alike, but is most important to freedivers that must equalize their masks with air from their lungs on a potentially long, breath-hold descent. Freediving masks tend to be extremely low volume for this reason.
Mask skirts are available in either clear or black silicone. The difference comes down to individual preference. Transparent silicone allows more light in the mask and some divers feel more comfortable with this and although you can’t really see through the silicone appreciate the sense of a better field of vision. However, because light penetrates through the sides of the mask, clear silicone skirts mean can result in some glare. This can be distracting and many divers opt for a black silicone to avoid this, especially photographers. Most masks are available in both silicone options, but not all are. Having logged many dives in both, I have a clear preference for a black mask, but I don’t mind diving with a mask with a clear skirt. Ultimately, the fit of a mask is more important than clear versus black silicone.
Aside from colour, silicone can vary in quality. Often this is the difference between an $80 mask and a $150 mask. Or the most important difference, anyhow. A mask with a high quality silicone will be softer and fit the contours of one’s face better and will tend to last much longer (by years or even decades) than those using a cheap, low-grade silicone seal.
Some masks over the years have come with a purge valve in the bottom, either at the nose or under one lens. The idea is to make clearing water from a mask while diving easier. However, it does present an additional failure point – a piece to malfunction, break or lose over time. Besides, the ‘benefit’ of a purge valve is that diver must look slightly downward and exhale out the nose to clear a mask rather than slowly looking up and exhaling through the nose to clear it. Predictably, these masks are becoming less common. Choose a scuba mask that is simple and comfortable; don’t be wooed by gimmicks.
Is there much to consider in terms of the lenses in a dive mask? Well, yes and no.
Masks these days should come with tempered glass. This makes them very difficult to break and if they do break it tends to break into tiny pieces that hold together rather than sharp shards of glass so as to minimize risk of injury.
The differences you will encounter in terms of glass in dive masks will often come down to clarity. Most quality masks will qualify as somewhere between about 85-90% clear with high end masks coming in in the lower to mid 90s. You may notice if you hold a low-mid range mask in front of white paper you can notice a bit of a greenish tint whereas the clearest masks will look truly clear. To be entirely honest, this will likely be impossible to notice in the water, particularly in BC’s emerald sea!
Some masks are available with various coatings on the lenses. These are to either help bring back colour that is lost as we descend through the water column or act as UV protection at the surface, etc. Some divers swear by them. For the most part these features tend to increase the cost of a mask without significantly improving its function when it counts so they should be secondary to fit.
There is not much to note in terms of mask straps and/or buckles. Honestly, it is likely best to avoid anything that is extremely convoluted in terms of buckle design. Buckles tend to be proprietary and difficult or impossible to repair or replace, especially a couple years down the road when that model has been discontinued. Stay clear of any mask that won’t permit you to replace a lost or broken strap. Some will opt the cover or replace silicone straps with neoprene covers or straps. These tend to be much more durable and for those with long hair much more comfortable than the basic silicone straps for a minimal cost.
Other Advice When Purchasing a Mask
What’s With The Toothpaste Thing?
When someone purchases a mask from us, we like to make sure that they’ll be happy with their new piece of gear. Nobody likes a foggy mask, so we help our customers will not have that frustration. That means a little preparation must be done to new masks. If you don’t remove film left from manufacturing a mask will fog up regardless of how liberal you are with spit/defog. There are some commercial products for this, but they’re sold in batches that exceed what most divers need. Alternatively, I’ve nervously watched other instructors take a lighter to the inside of a brand new mask. So we’ll tell you the real trick: get some non-gel toothpaste. That’s right: regular, white toothpaste. Put a glob of it on the inside of each lens, rub it around thoroughly. Rinse. Repeat. I do this 2-3 times whenever I get a new mask. It is the cheapest, easiest, most effective way to prep a mask without worrying about scratching the glass (or melting the silicone).
Spit or Defog?
Some aren’t keen on spitting in their masks and, believe it or not, not everyone has spit that works as effective defogger. That’s where commercial defog comes in. It’s a relatively cheap purchase and will last quite a while. Normally you only need to apply it once a day when you’re diving, maybe twice.
Wearing your mask
A couple quick tips. First, fight the urge to crank a mask down as tight as possible to keep it from leaking. This is uncomfortable and counterproductive. It will cause the silicone to bend and crease and allow water in.
Second, for those diving in cooler waters, ensure that your mask is lying flat along your face. It should not be sitting over any part of your hood (except for those with latex dry hoods). This can be a bit tricky to do for yourself and you should not hesitate to ask a buddy for a hand to properly position the silicone.
For those with long hair, you will want to avoid getting any hair under the mask skirt so it can require even more patience.
For those moustachioed divers and snorkelers out there, this facial hair can impact the seal of the mask. Which leaves a diver with a few options: deal with the leaking, if it isn’t too extreme; shave the facial hair if you aren’t too attached to it; apply a light coating of silicone grease (often kept handy to lubricate camera housing o-rings, etc); or apply a thin amount of petroleum jelly to the moustache (this last option tends to cause damage to the silicone of the mask).