How safe are full face masks?
Full face snorkel masks have become increasingly popular in recent years for their convenience and perceived safety. However, news reports of drowning deaths in Hawaii being linked to full face snorkel masks have raised concerns about their safety.
It's important to separate fact from fiction and understand the history and development of these masks in order to make informed decisions about their use. In this article, we will delve deeper into the safety of full face snorkel masks and provide all the necessary information to help you make an informed choice.
A very brief history on the Full Face Snorkeling Mask
Full face snorkel masks have been on the market since 2014, when they were developed by manufacturers Tribord and Ocean Reef. Ocean Reef is known for producing high-quality full face SCUBA diving masks.
In 2015, the Easybreath model and other brands of full face snorkel masks were showcased at international scuba and snorkel equipment shows, leading to their rapid popularity among snorkelers worldwide. The design of these masks differs significantly from traditional snorkel and mask combinations, featuring an innovative breathing system that allows for natural mouth and nose breathing and eliminates the need for a mouthpiece.
Full face masks also have a larger field of vision and are constantly being improved upon. The lack of a mouthpiece, the ability to breathe through the mouth and nose, and the elimination of fogging are some of the main reasons for the popularity of these masks.
If these are so good, then what's going wrong?
Full face snorkel masks have gained popularity due to their innovative design and convenience. However, the success of these masks has led to a proliferation of cheap, low-quality knock-offs being produced and sold by unscrupulous manufacturers, particularly in China.
These knock-offs do not meet the same standards of quality and safety as the original, reputable brands, and have been linked to a number of drowning incidents. It is important to be aware of this issue and to purchase full face snorkel masks only from trusted, reputable manufacturers in order to ensure the safety and reliability of the product.
Cheap Copies that are Made in China
It is important to be aware of the issue of low-quality, knock-off full face snorkel masks being sold online, particularly on sites like Amazon. These masks are often produced in China and sold at very low prices, tempting consumers to purchase them as a bargain.
However, these knock-off masks are made with inferior quality materials and do not meet the same standards of safety and reliability as the original, reputable brands. As a result, they may have issues such as the dry snorkel float getting stuck in the tube, leaks at the joints due to poor fitting, and easily breakable snorkel tubes.
These issues can be dangerous and can give the false impression that all full face snorkel masks are of poor quality, when in fact reputable brands offer high-quality, safe products. It is important to purchase full face snorkel masks only from trusted, reputable manufacturers in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable snorkeling experience.
Are cheap masks really that bad?
Low-quality full face snorkel masks may be made with inferior silicone that is inflexible and unable to create a proper seal around the face, resulting in leaks and discomfort. In an attempt to compensate for this, some users may over-tighten the straps, causing rubbing and discomfort on the face or nose.
These issues can make the snorkeling experience unpleasant and can be avoided by purchasing high-quality full face snorkel masks from reputable manufacturers.
Can cheap masks really be dangerous?
Low-quality full face snorkel masks may not fit properly, leading to issues with the seal around the mouth and nose. If the orinasal pocket (the lower section covering the mouth and nose) does not form a proper seal, exhaled CO2 and moisture will remain inside the mask rather than being expelled through the snorkel.
This can lead to fogging, which can obstruct your vision, and an excess of CO2, which can be dangerous and potentially cause unconsciousness. It is important to purchase high-quality full face snorkel masks from reputable manufacturers in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable snorkeling experience.
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 any activity involving the ocean carries inherent risks. This is particularly true in Hawaii, where high surf and strong riptides can be dangerous even for experienced swimmers. It is important to be aware of your limits and to respect the ocean at all times.
In this article, we will address some common myths about full face snorkel masks and snorkeling in general, using information from HIOceanSafety.com and the State of Hawaii Department of Health as references.
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 is 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
It is important to understand the limitations of full face snorkel masks in order to ensure your personal safety and get the most out of your mask.
These masks are not intended for vigorous exercise such as swimming laps, as the air tube is not wide enough to provide sufficient air.
They are also not suitable for free diving or diving below 10 feet (3 meters). Most full face masks are not designed for deep diving and do not allow for equalization, although there are exceptions such as the Ninja Shark.
Full face snorkel masks may need to be removed when swimming between snorkeling spots and are best used in calm waters.
These masks may take some time to get used to, and it is important to adjust your breathing and ensure you feel relaxed before getting into the water.
While there is a learning curve, using a high-quality mask can enhance your snorkeling experience.
Doug Kramer & Family
PBA Champion, Doug Kramer with his family on holiday with Full Face Snorkel Masks.
Video - How to safely swim with a full face snorkel mask
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?
If you're considering purchasing a full face snorkel mask, it's important to be aware that there are both high-quality and low-quality options on the market. While it may be tempting to save money by choosing a cheaper mask, it is generally worth it to invest in a reputable, brand-name model. These masks are more likely to perform well and provide a more enjoyable snorkeling experience.
If your budget doesn't allow for a top-quality full face mask, a traditional diving mask and snorkel may be a better option. It's also a good idea to invest in a good snorkeling vest, which can provide added safety and convenience for swimmers of all fitness levels.
Are full face snorkel masks worth the hype? We put them to the test
I have had the opportunity to test and review both reputable and low-quality full face snorkel masks. I only recommend masks that I would feel comfortable allowing my own children to use.
Recently, my family and some friends visited a natural swimming spot and spent hours snorkeling with a variety of full face masks. We also had some friends who brought their traditional diving masks and snorkels.
The full face masks were passed around and well-received, with most people enjoying the experience and wanting to know where they could purchase one.
However, it's important to note that not everyone felt comfortable using these masks and that's okay. It's also worth noting that the swimming spot had relatively calm water and the masks were used in both deeper and shallower areas. My kids are strong swimmers and in good health.
Hawaii Snorkeling Tour Operators
It is important to note that some tour boat operators will not allow the use of personal full face snorkel masks on their tours. However, after reaching out to several popular snorkeling tour companies, I have found that most of them are happy to allow the use of these masks.
Safety is a top priority for tour operators in Hawaii, and they won't allow anything that could jeopardize the safety of their guests. If you are interested in using your own full face snorkel mask on a tour, the link provided below lists companies that allow them and those that do not allow the use of full face masks at all.
The quality full face snorkel masks that we recommend
When it comes to full face snorkel masks, it is often the case that the best options are also the most expensive. You have the choice between investing in a high-quality mask that will last for years or opting for a cheaper, lower-quality option that may only last for one season.
Some reputable brands to consider include the Ocean Reef Aria (which now features quick release straps for easy removal), the Ninja Shark, the Tribord Subea Easybreath, and the SeaView 180. Keep in mind that Tribord Subea is reducing the number of available sizes in order to cut manufacturing costs, so their masks may become cheaper but may not be available in children's sizes.
I take pride in recommending safe and reliable gear and encourage you to read more about these individual masks.