How safe are full face masks?
I must admit, I felt sick when I read about the spate of drowning deaths of snorkelers in Hawaii being attributed to unsafe full face snorkel masks. Unfortunately, the first article I read was the UK Daily Mail and it was barely more than click bait.
As I review and recommend full face masks, I wanted to dig deeper and find out the facts. If these are dangerous, I'm going to be the first one to stand up and say so.
I know you came here to find out more about how safe the full face mask is, so click the link below to skip straight to the answer to that question.
Otherwise keep scrolling to read a super brief history on the full face snorkel mask and other information that explains how we got to where we are today.
A very brief history on the Full Face Snorkeling Mask
Tribord (Decathlon) and Ocean Reef are two well known manufacturers who developed the full face snorkel mask together and released it for sale in May 2014. Ocean Reef make quality full face SCUBA diving masks.
Following the unveiling of the Easybreath model along with other brands at international scuba and snorkel equipment shows in 2015, full face snorkel masks gained popularity very quickly with snorkelers worldwide.
The masks look radically different from a traditional snorkel and mask, and a lot of work has gone into the design of a safe breathing system. This new air circulation design eliminates fogging and the need for a mouthpiece. By creating a pocket for breathing that is separate from the viewing area means people can breathe using both their mouth and nose. This style of breathing feels natural and is a big plus for many snorkelers.
Full face masks have a larger field of vision than a traditional mask, and the designs continue to be improved upon each year. This, as well as the lack of a mouth piece and the elimination of fogging are the main reasons full face masks have become popular so quickly.
If these are so good, then what's going wrong?
There are a number of manufacturers who have put a lot of time and hard work into developing their own brand of full face snorkel mask. The masks are proving to be a huge success, and once something becomes a hit, others want to cash in on the success.
These designs are being poorly copied in China and sold to international markets. To say the quality of many of these imports is poor, is an understatement.
Poor quality copies are being imported from China and sold on Amazon and other online stores for very low prices. This is when a bargain, is not a bargain. I can recommend the best high quality masks, but people will still buy the cheap knock-off's, and then come away disappointed with the misconception that all full face snorkel masks are rubbish - and that just isn't the case.
There are so many 1-star reviews of the cheap knock-off brands on Amazon. Many disappointed reviewers mention how the snorkel float gets stuck in the tube cutting off air, or of masks leaking in joins because the pieces don't fit together properly, and snorkel tubes breaking when connecting or disconnecting. These issues are all due to these being made with inferior quality products.
Masks will also feel really uncomfortable and leak if the silicone is a low grade and doesn't have the flexibility needed to give a good seal around the face. Often, in order to create a reasonable seal with the cheaper masks, users will over-tighten the straps. This can cause rubbing on the face or the bridge of the nose which will take the pleasure out of snorkeling.
Why you don't want cheap or bad fitting masks
If the snorkeling mask doesn’t fit properly, and particularly if the orinasal pocket (the lower section that covers your mouth and nose) doesn’t form a good seal over your nose and mouth, you will exhale both CO2 and moisture back into the mask, and not expel it completely through the snorkel.
Moisture will spoil your view by fogging and too much CO2 can be dangerous and even lead to a loss of consciousness.
Fogging in the orinasal pocket is not a problem at all, but it is when it occurs in other sections of the mask.
If you read nothing else in this article, you really want to read this!
One well known manufacturer of full-face snorkel masks is Ocean Reef. They make full face SCUBA masks as well as their Aria full face snorkel mask.
Ocean Reef donated the full face SCUBA masks used to bring the Thai boys and their soccer coach out of the cave they were trapped in during July 2018.
Along with Head/Mares, Ocean Reef are assisting Hawaiian Authorities in their research into the causes of drownings. Ocean Reef state that their mask eliminates air containing high carbon dioxide when it's being used, which other full-face masks may not do. See their statement below.
Ocean Reef - Jon Wilkins
Ocean Reef USA’s Sport Division Manager
Since 2014, there have been more than 1 million full face snorkeling masks, which have been designed and manufactured by Ocean Reef/Italy, sold into the world marketplace.
The design comes from more than 25 years of experience in the military, professional and recreational full face mask gas and scuba markets. These masks were designed to increase the enjoyment of snorkelers.
Ocean Reef’s masks are designed so that users breathe in fresh air, and eliminate spent air containing high CO2 content, safely and comfortably.
With reference to 'knock-off’ versions, we believe that those which have been produced without understanding of, or non-adherence to, the same safety designs as Ocean Reef’s, may be a cause of reported discomfort to users. In addition, some of those products could be dangerous because of those design flaws, primarily related to inadequately eliminating carbon dioxide build up."
Snorkeling Myths vs Facts in Hawaii
Snorkeling, swimming, and anything involving the ocean always includes an element of risk. Hawaii has high surf and strong riptides that are hazardous even for experienced swimmers. You need to be aware of your limits and respect the ocean at all times.
Here we address some of the common myths surrounding full face snorkel mask, and snorkeling in general. Note: All the information below has been referenced from HIOceanSaftey.com on advice from State of Hawaii Department of Health.
The Myth: Using a traditional snorkel and mask is safer than using a full-face snorkel mask
Snorkel related drowning occurred before full face masks became available. There is currently no evidence proving that a specific type of snorkel equipment is dangerous.
Causes are currently under investigation and include challenges with equipment, fatigue, changes in O2 / CO2 concentration, medical conditions, the effects of air travel, as well as other factors.
The Myth: You don't need to know how to swim to go snorkeling
Experts agree that you should never go snorkeling if you can't swim. You need to be comfortable in the water and able to swim without the assistance of swimming aids and flotation equipment.
Responsible tour boat operators will not let their customers go snorkeling if they can't swim.
The Myth: Snorkeling is easy
While snorkeling in a pool, in calm water, or in water you can stand in can be easy, breathing through a narrow tube is more challenging than swimming.
If your health is poor, or you just don't feel up to it, then snorkeling isn't for you. There are plenty of other ways to view the underwater world while visiting Hawaii, such as glass bottom boat tours.
The Statistics of Ocean Drownings in Hawaii
Snorkeling has been the leading cause of injury-related deaths to visitors to Hawaii for a long time. According to Hawaii State Department of Health, there are on average 18 drowning deaths in Hawaii each year. When 11 deaths occurred in a relatively short period of time early in 2018, stories started appearing in click bait hungry media that doesn't appear to be based on any facts.
Unfortunately, drownings of all kinds are a year-round occurrence in Hawaii but tend to spike at the peak holiday periods of July and December. Most deaths occur while snorkeling at beaches with no lifeguards. Of the average 18 deaths each year, only one death will be of a local resident. The remainder are visitors to the islands.
Dan Galanis - Epidemiologist
Department of Health, Hawaii
Statistical data published on the Hawaii Department of Health website highlights that the common threads among drowning victims in Hawaii include:
"Up to 75 to 80 percent are males of 50 years old and above, and that circulatory diseases (i.e. respiratory, pulmonary, heart disease) possibly or probably contribute to 58 percent of these snorkel-related drownings.
You can see Dan Galanis' full report here. Clicking this link will take you to his report on the Health Department of Hawaii's website.
How do full face masks work and do you need to worry about CO2?
The original makers of full face masks put a lot of time into the testing and development of a breathing system that specifically prevents CO2 build up.
The circulation system on good full face masks keeps fresh air for inhalation completely separate from the CO2 exhaled.
Many full face snorkel masks have split the tube of the snorkel piece into 3 sections. The middle inner tube channels air directly into the top section of the mask where it is drawn through to the mouth and nose pocket via valves. This is exhaled and channeled back out through the other 2 air channels within the snorkel tube. This is demonstrated in the first image below.
What's being done now?
HEAD / Mares full face snorkel mask manufacturer
HEAD / Mares is one of the manufacturers of quality brand full face masks. They are working with Hawaiian authorities to help get an understanding of what's happened. HEAD / Mares has undertaken specialized testing of various masks on the market and possible CO2 build up.
HEAD / Mares gave the test results to the lead investigators in the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and offered them the use of the Mares testing facility, among other assistance. You can read their report at the bottom of this article.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is backing several water safety initiatives, including:
Understanding the limits of full face snorkel masks
There are restrictions to using these masks that many people aren't aware of. It is very important to know the limitations of the mask for your own personal safety, to get the most out of your mask, and also to avoid disappointment.
Firstly, these are not intended for swimming laps or exercising as the air tube is too narrow to provide enough air during vigorous exercise.
These are NOT for free diving, or diving below 10 feet (3 meters). You can't equalize with most full face masks as they are designed for leisurely snorkeling on or just under the surface of the water. (There are equalizing masks that allow you to swim deeper such as the Ninja Shark).
You will probably need to take it off when swimming between snorkeling spots.
These are for use in relatively calm waters.
Full face snorkel masks can take a little getting used to. You need to spend some time adjusting your breathing and making sure you're feel relaxed before you get into the water. Learning to use a good quality mask can be worth it, and will make a snorkeling holiday unforgettable.
The video below is the best I've seen so far in explaining how to safely swim with a full face snorkel mask. Rule #1 is the same whether snorkeling with a traditional mask or a full face mask, and that is: ALWAYS swim with a buddy.
Still wondering whether to get a full face snorkel mask?
There are full face snorkel masks that are a real waste of money, as well as others that will be okay, but not great.
The top well-known brands and models perform the best and give the greatest pleasure. You're so much better off paying a bit more and spending your money on brand-name model. This will give you a quality mask that does what you are entitled to expect it to do when you go snorkeling.
If your budget doesn't stretch that far, then go for a good quality traditional diving mask and snorkel. You'll be much happier with this than buying a cheap full face snorkel mask.
Regardless of whether you're using a full face mask or a traditional snorkel and face mask, investing in a good snorkeling vest has some real benefits for swimmers, no matter what your level of fitness.
What's our experience? Would I let my family use these?
Ahhh, YES! I get to test and review big name brand full face masks as well as the lesser known 'knock off's'. The best endorsement I can give is that I'm happy for my kids to use any of the masks that I recommend.
My family along with some friends, recently went to a popular local swimming spot with my collection of full face snorkel masks. Some of my friends also took their expensive traditional style diving mask and snorkels with them, just in case.
We spent hours (seriously, I do mean hours) snorkeling and absolutely loved the experience of full face masks.
We shared the full face masks around with some interested tourists, including a few older people who weren't confident swimmers. Some only used them in areas where they could stand and enjoyed looking at the fish, others swam around with them. The overall consensus was that they loved the experience. To be honest, one lady didn't enjoy the feel of the mask on her face, but she was the exception. Not everyone feels comfortable with these, and that's ok. The ones that enjoyed them wanted to know where they could buy one from.
Full Disclosure: The swimming spot was at the base of a waterfall, and the water was relatively calm. These were used in both deeper water, and around areas we could stand in. My kids are great swimmers, and are reasonably fit and healthy.
Hawaii Snorkeling Tour Operators
I've had people contact me to let me know that some Tour Boat Operators won't let them use their own full face snorkels while on their tour. After hearing this, I contacted the popular snorkeling tour companies and so far, the majority of them are more than happy for you to bring your own full face snorkel mask.
Remember, this is their neck of the woods and their livelihood at stake. The Tour Operators in Hawaii are some of the most safety conscious in the world so they're not going to do something that will jeopardize anyone's safety.
If you click the link below you'll be taken to a page that lists tour companies that will let you to bring your own snorkeling mask, as well as ones which will not allow you to use a full face mask at all.
The quality full face snorkel masks that we recommend
The best masks are also the most expensive. The choice of a quality mask that will last years, or something that's good for one season only, and may or may not be made well, is completely up to you. The ones I recommend are the Ocean Reef Aria, the Ninja Shark, the Tribord Subea Easybreath and Wildhorn Outfitters Seaview 180.
The new Ocean Reef Aria model now comes with 'quick release' straps. This allows you to get it off your head faster than ever.
Tribord Subea are cutting down on their available sizes to reduce on their manufacturing costs. This means their masks are becoming cheaper overall, but you won't be able to buy masks in children's sizes from them for much longer.
I take pride in recommending good quality, and safe gear. If you'd like to read more about each of these masks, click the image below so see full reviews.