If you have heard about full face snorkel masks, you know they are supposed to be more comfortable and allow you a larger field of view. But a few isolated incidents in Hawaii in 2018 raised concerns over the safety of these masks.

A well-designed full face mask is not dangerous as long as the snorkeler learns to use it properly. Practice removing and replacing it quickly. Buy a top quality masks designed to prevent carbon dioxide buildup. The reported adverse events occurred in people with no experience or with cheaper masks.

While the debate surrounding these masks is mainly because there was a small spike in snorkeling-related deaths in Hawaii in early 2018, there hasn’t been a spike in reported incidents since those early reports.

Why would full face snorkel masks be dangerous?

There are many possible arguments against the full-face snorkel mask surrounding the increased deaths of users, the case for carbon dioxide buildup, issues with equipment malfunction and fit, and the high propensity for misuse. 

Practice with full-face masks before first use to prevent accidents

Higher Snorkeling-Related Deaths

One of the main issues that brought up safety concerns regarding the full-face snorkel mask is that, back in 2018, there had been an increase in snorkel-related deaths in Hawaii that people couldn’t ignore. In Hawaii, there had been ten snorkeling-related deaths in the first three months of 2018.

This number is substantial, considering that the number of snorkeling-related deaths in Hawaii had only been an average of 17 per year up until that point. 

Additionally, a 64-year-old man from Texas was found dead snorkeling in calm waters off Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach in May of 2019. He was found floating face down and wearing a full-face mask.

Hawaii’s snorkeling-related deaths have doubled over the last four years, which has caused several Hawaii companies to ban full-face snorkel masks.

But science and medicine don’t work that way for long-term policy making. More testing and data will be needed in order to determine if the design is flawed from the start, or if certain feature of particular masks increase risks.

It is unethical to use people as test subjects, so lab testing of airflow, mask design and shape, fluctuations due to size and many more factors will need to be studied.

One thing is certain at this point though: the masks are harder to remove. So if a snorkeler gets into a hazardous situation or panics and needs to breathe with the mask off, it is more difficult. Practicing putting the mask on and taking it off several times before using it could possibly help prevent injuries and deaths.

Lack of Safety Standards

There also aren’t any specific safety standards for the design or manufacturing of any snorkeling-related equipment in the United States. While we may be able to see that regular snorkeling masks and snorkels have proven to be safe over time, it may be too early to judge the safety of full-face snorkel masks. 

Additionally, some manufacturers have claimed to pass the European safety standards for snorkeling products, but this cannot be used to prove safety. The specific requirements to meet the European safety standards for snorkeling equipment only applies to snorkel masks and snorkels. They each have separate requirements. 

Because the full-face snorkel mask is not just a mask, nor just a snorkel, it would need a safety standard of its own to be deemed “safe.” Currently, it does not have individual safety requirements according to European standards. 

Because of this, most full-face snorkeling masks have undergone no standards compliance testing, so the actual safety of these masks is unknown. 

Carbon Dioxide Build Up

Dead air space is the air that does not circulate when you breathe due to it being in an unventilated air space. When you breathe, this air ends up stuck in the “air space” as a mix of fresh air and exhaled breath. 

When you breathe in and out of a snorkel, some exhaled air remains in the snorkel even though there is an opening for its release. As you continue to breathe in and out of it, you start to take in more of the previously exhaled air that remains in the tube.

Since the dead air space contains previously exhaled air, it contains carbon dioxide. To get enough oxygen and release the carbon dioxide, you would need to breathe in and out quite deeply to counteract this. 

The problem with a full-face snorkel mask is that it adds even more dead space. Breathing in that enclosed space makes it easier for carbon dioxide to build up in your lungs since the air has nowhere to go when you exhale and then re-inhale it.

At high enough concentrations, carbon dioxide poisoning can occur and lead to increased respiratory rate, tachycardia, cardiac arrhythmias, and impaired consciousness. At levels greater than 10%, convulsions, coma, and death can occur. 

According to the Scuba Doctor, a man’s wife had problems with the full face snorkeling mask saying: “I’ve just returned back to mainland USA from Maui. I rented full face masks for some of the family. My wife suffered respiratory arrest and cardiac difficulties requiring CPR on the beach. No history of heart, lung or any disease. No medications. Mild swimming for 15 minutes and no diving.”

According to CBS News, a woman named Nancy Peacock died while snorkeling in Hawaii on her own. She had been trying out a full-face mask that she purchased and was found dead less than an hour after entering the water.

According to her husband, Peacock had been an avid snorkeler and proficient swimmer. Therefore, it would make sense to explore the possibility that carbon dioxide poisoning was a factor.

CBS early report on safety questions

Issues with Equipment

As far as products go, a few take into account this understanding of dead air space. The highest quality producers of full-face snorkel masks have sealed off the mouth and nose from the eye-portion of the mask and created a pocket near the mouth/nose area of the mask to keep dead air space limited to that area only.

They have also installed a one-way valve at the top of the full-face snorkel mask’s snorkel. This is designed to only let fresh air in and prevent any carbon dioxide from entering the user’s lungs. All carbon-dioxide is pushed to the lower part of the mask. Then, it is expelled out of the snorkel on both sides of the mask.

Many companies have created cheap, poor-quality masks that do not have mechanisms such as the one described. Sometimes the valves are faulty and do not work. Any slight problems with this mask and it suddenly become hazardous.

Furthermore, even with a good quality mask that has been designed well, there is still the possibility of product failure eventually. Over time, straps can become loose, and the critical parts needed to breathe properly could eventually fail or become loose as well. Some of the full-face masks are also prone to leaking and fogging up. 

Unfortunately, because there is no certification needed to go snorkeling, the average consumer has no way of knowing whether their personal full-face snorkel mask is functioning optimally. 

Lastly, while carbon dioxide can be a problem with the standard two-piece snorkel equipment as well, the full-face snorkel mask is harder to remove than a typical mask, which could be dire in an emergency. This is where the practice I mentioned above comes into play.

It Has to Fit Perfectly

Another issue that comes with this type of mask is that it must fit perfectly. Without the proper size and fit, the mask can, once again, become dangerous.

If your face does not fit the nose/mouth enclosure completely and the mask does not seal properly, you would end up breathing from the whole mask volume, meaning more dead airspace and a higher chance of carbon dioxide poisoning. That is why straps becoming loose becomes such an issue.

High Possibility for Misuse

Because anyone can go snorkeling, there is a high possibility for misuse of these masks. Full face masks are not meant for swimming, scuba or free-diving. Instead, they are meant for a relatively inactive snorkeler who plans to stay on the surface of the water.

There is a high chance that the average consumer doesn’t know this because they may not be reading all the instructions on how to use it properly. Additionally, there is a false sense of security with these masks because of how comfortable they are. 

People who go snorkeling do so to go out into the ocean and see marine life underwater. If snorkelers get too comfortable, there is a chance that those who don’t understand the risks involved in using this mask could end up going deep out into the ocean or end up using it to dive.

The problem with this lies in the fact that, once again, there is no way to guarantee the quality of the mask, so swimming out into the ocean where there are waves is going to require more exertion and could end up leading to rapid carbon dioxide poisoning.

Additionally, many snorkelers go out and choose to free-dive at shallow depths. Still, because of the restrictions of regular snorkeling equipment (you must be on the surface to use it), they usually end up coming back up to the surface quickly. 

Because of how comfortable the full-face scuba mask is, people may feel they can use it for diving deeper underwater. With this mask, you cannot grab your nose to equalize.

Those who have a better understanding of pressure changes know that you must equalize on the descent when going underwater to avoid damaging the ears. A beginning snorkeler is unlikely to know this and could end up hurting themselves. 

Also, on the dive down, the increase in pressure can cause the mask to suction onto your face inducing pain and making it hard to breathe out of your nose. The danger occurs when coming up to the surface.

As pressure decreases, the mask can become loose, allowing water to breach the seal and flood the face full of water. Because you cannot easily remove the mask, it becomes hard to clear the water, which could induce panic in the user and lead to possible drowning if they inhale too much water. 

How could full face snorkel masks be safe?

The arguments for full face snorkel masks are since there is inconclusive evidence that higher snorkeling-related deaths in Hawaii are caused by full face snorkel masks.  Also, proponents of full-face masks say that if users purchase a high-quality mask and use it correctly, they will remain safe.

Inconclusive Evidence

The arguments for the full-face snorkel mask focus on the inconclusive evidence surrounding the increased snorkeling-related deaths in Hawaii. Drowning is the leading cause of death for tourists in Hawaii, with snorkeling the most common activity contributing to drownings. The keyword here is tourists. The increase in snorkeling-related mortality has not been the same for Hawaii residents (Source.)

Thus, the fact that Hawaii has seen an increase in tourism could mean that there are just more non-residents out in the water snorkeling leading to a higher amount of deaths.

There are also speculations regarding if those that died had pre-existing medical conditions or were just generally inexperienced in snorkeling.

Another issue is that, up until 2017, there was no formal statewide database that kept track of equipment type and brand while snorkeling, so there was no way of knowing if death was due to specific equipment. Now counties have begun tracking equipment, but there isn’t enough data yet to make any conclusions.

According to the Hawaiian State Health Department, they only had information on the type of mask worn in 16% of the 112 snorkeling-related drownings in Hawaii from 2014 to 2018.  From those, a traditional two-piece mask and snorkel were worn in 11 of those drownings, and a full-face mask was only used in five of them.  

Additionally, of the 56 snorkeling-related rescues on Kauai in 2019, lifeguards reported 13 people were wearing full-face masks, and 43 had a two-piece mask that includes the snorkel.

Quality and Proper Use

Those who advocate for the full-face snorkel mask say that if you purchase a mask from a quality manufacturer, they are safe to use. There are a handful of manufacturers who have put in much time and hard work into developing high- quality full face snorkel masks, making safety their top priority. 

Because these masks had such great success in the marketplace, poorly designed copies started to be made in China to sell to international markets. These low-cost masks are cheap for a reason. They do not provide the same standard of safety measures built into the mask. 

Advocates for the mask also say that as long as one uses a high-quality mask properly without swimming or diving, it can be used safely. Additionally, part of making sure you are using it properly is making sure it fits correctly. To make sure it fits correctly, try it on before going in the water. Breathe in it outside of the water and make sure only the breathing part of the mask fogs up. 

Good standard mask vs full face comparison with tips

Manufacturers and Disclosure

While there is debate on the safety of full-face snorkel masks, these three prominent manufacturers have done the most to make full-face snorkel masks safe:

  • Decathlon-Subea
  • HEAD/Mares
  • SEAC 

These three have publicly addressed safety questions by making information public on standards and tests. According to the recommendations of the manufacturers, as long as you do not use these masks to do extensive open water swimming or diving, you should be safe. Please proceed with caution, though, since the evidence is still inconclusive.

Top-rated quality built full face masks

After reading all of the above, you’d like to try a full-face mask, be sure to get one with segmented inhale and exhale dividers. Two top-rated masks on YouTube and Amazon are the Orsen Full Face Snorkel Mask and the Sea Beast AF90. Both are show below. Note the emphasis on avoiding carbon dioxide buildup.

The Sea Beast AF90 is another top-rated mask on Amazon and in YouTube reviews. Note it has a much rounder shape, an important consideration if choosing between these two masks.

Again, free-diving is limited. But the one-way ball-cock style valve in the snorkel does prevent water inflow, saving you the need to have a little left in your lungs to clear upon surfacing. But should it stick, you could be out of breath quickly. Be sure to practice removing it quickly before trying any (limited) free diving.

Sea Beast AF90 Review

What Are the Best Alternatives to Full-Face Snorkel Masks?

The alternative to a full-face snorkel mask is the classic two-piece mask with a separate snorkel. Below are two highly reviewed two-piece snorkel masks. You can read more on choosing the right fit and mask type, including prescription lenses, in our article on masks.

What Are General Guidelines for Snorkel Safety?

The general guidelines for snorkel safety are as follows:

  • Check weather/water conditions
  • If you are not feeling well, do not go snorkeling
  • Never go snorkeling alone
  • Begin your planned snorkel route into the current to make return easier. 
  • If snorkeling at night, wear glow tubes and use good flashlights
  • Do not snorkel under the influence

Final Thoughts

While there is still debate over the safety of the full-face snorkel mask, my opinion is that the well-designed quality masks will be just as safe as standard masks.

As I stated above, a new user should definitely practice with it in a pool first, learning to remove and replace it quickly and safely. These masks take a little more skill to use, especially in a stressful situation. Be prepared by practicing first.

Always remember that the first priority when snorkeling is maintaining the ability to breath. In the event your mask gets dislodged, make sure you can quickly switch to breathing above the surface without the mask while retrieving it, and learn to place it back onto your face to maintain breathing first.

Hold it in place and position your face correctly so the snorkel is out of the water. The you can replace the strap and work on any saltwater or sand in the mask after re-establishing your source of air.

 Armed with all of the above info, my advice is to decide for yourself which system you’d like to try, and then just have fun. There’s a lot of this planet that most never get to see. Come join those of us who love the underwater world, and maybe you’ll become hooked on the fun and learn to be an advocate for ocean preservation along the way.

Now get out there, stay safe and have fun!