Oceans are teeming with wildlife and things to explore, but cannot be seen unless you’ve got the right gear for it. If you’re someone who has ever shopped around for snorkel masks, scuba masks, or goggles, you may have a few questions about what they’re each for, and what they can do for swimmers.
These different masks and goggles differ in construction, price, and function. Snorkeling masks are plastic and allow shallow water swimming. Scuba masks are made from tempered glass to protect the eyes and nose while diving deeper. Swim goggles just cover the eyes and work best when used around the water’s surface.
There is a myriad of variations of types of face protection you can wear in the water to enjoy and explore the beauty of the ocean; however, how deep you can really go and what you can do depends on what mask you have available.
The following are just a few general differences between snorkeling masks, scuba masks, and goggles:
|$$ to $$$
|Mid-depth swimming, snorkeling, pools, work with a snorkel breathing tube
|Full face mask, eyes/nose only, light or dark mask skirt colors
|$$ to $$$$
|Deep dive protection, professional underwater work, military use
|Full face mask, eyes/nose only connection for scuba hose, tempered glass, glass color tinting, mask skirt coloration
|$ to $$
|Shallow pool swimming, competitive speed swimming, leisure
|Adjustable nose, plastic/glass lenses, variable styles
The remainder of this article will discuss these primary differences and more between these three types of gear and when it’s best to use each so you can stay safe in the water no matter the depth and enjoy your dives in the wonderful deep blue.
About Snorkeling Masks
Snorkeling masks may almost look difficult to use or confusing to first time snorkelers, but they are scientifically designed to help the user swim just below the surface for as long as they please. All snorkeling masks are designed to allow the user to breath through a snorkel that extends from their mouth to above the water. The snorkel clips onto the mask strap wherever the snorkeler feels is the most comfortable position.
Usually, these masks cover the eyes and the nose to help vent any water that’s leaked in and to limit breathing to be only through the accompanying snorkel. They prevent accidental inhalation attempts through the nose, since this can lead to big problems.
When compared to scuba masks, there is not a major difference. At a base level, both snorkeling and scuba masks can be used interchangeably. However, snorkelers are limited in how far down into the water they can travel before the snorkel is submerged. While they may free dive to 10-20 feet, the mask won’t be exposed to the pressures of scuba diving at greater depths. Because of this, they often use lighter weight polycarbonate lenses.
Snorkeling masks can range in price from ten to hundreds of dollars, depending on the options available and if they will contain prescription lenses. Most full face masks are around $50 or more. Snorkeling masks can often be purchased online or from a tourist or specialized shops near the water.
Snorkeling is primarily a leisure sport; it’s meant to be a great way for swimmers to enjoy sea life while remaining close to the surface.
Mask are more often used in shallow to mid-depth swimming. Mid-depth swimming can be anywhere from a few inches below the water, down to a several feet. In the case of the latter, snorkelers will be holding their breath to reach and explore these depths. This can be done as long as the swimmer dives for short bursts of time and returns to the surface before they are completely out of breath.
Snorkeling masks are built to be slightly slanted as a whole. Masks have wide eye lenses often shaped like a teardrop and are tapered at the bottom, tilting the lenses close to 45 degrees forward to allow the swimmer to see the fish they’re there for.
Some have segmented lenses, one for each eye, while others are full face options. Depending on your swim time, what you’re looking at, and your budget, you will want to explore the different variations of masks available before buying to make sure you get exactly what you need for snorkeling.
Full Mask vs. Half Masks
Full face snorkeling masks, as the name implies, cover your entire face, while allowing you to see through a single, unsegmented lens. They usually have a snorkel integrated into the top of the mask, so the user does not have a separate snorkel to breathe.
Because of this, it can be more comfortable compared to traditional half masks, and these may be easier for new snorkelers who are not yet used to breathing through a standard breathing tube. But new snorkelers should be aware of the limitations of these masks before deciding to purchase one. We explain further in this post.
The downside to full masks is that because it uses a uniformed viewing lens, you cannot change it out for a prescription lens. Getting the correct fit for a full mask can also be more difficult, since you have to consider your face as a whole, rather than just your eyes and nose. We have 2 different shapes on our Recommended Gear page to fit different faces.
Half masks, on the other hand, require users to hold a snorkel in the mouth, which some people report causes jaw fatigue or TMJ pain. But many snorkelers don’t experience this, and may prefer these masks due to their long-term safety record and the vast array of choices available. However, whether or not you decide to go with a full face or half mask really depends on your preference.
Some snorkeling masks vary in their degree of slanted lenses so you can see more. They also offer a range of rim colors.
Masks also range in lens type. Whether prescription or non-prescription, you can have a snorkeling mask that allows you to replace the lenses so you can see underwater without your glasses. Full masks, on the other hand, have a fixed lens and therefore, can’t be changed; however, they can be fitted with tempered glass, which works better in deeper underwater pressures.
Similarly to scuba masks, snorkeling masks have a skirt or rubber/silicone rim that attaches to it, allowing different sized faces to wear them. The skirting also helps keep the mask sealed to the face and stabilizes water pressure; this keeps the water out and air in so you can see into the depths of the water without leaking.
Snorkeling masks also feature different types of headbands that can clip on or adjust on the fly while in the water. Read our post on choosing a mask for more info and some examples.
Some snorkeling masks also account for facial hair. The skirting and various options of straps may allow for the face to fit easily, but the seal may not be strong enough around a beard. In these instances, dive shops encourage those with large beards to apply a special wax (see diving with facial hair) to it so that the mask can fit nice and snug without leaking air or water.
About Scuba Masks
Scuba masks offer the highest level of protection for the diver. They provide ample space for the user to see underwater in comfort. These masks often have higher-rated tempered glass to keep the high pressure from the depths of the ocean from breaking the lenses. Scuba masks can take the form of full-face masks or a half mask that only covers the eyes and nose. Full face scuba masks are still very rare and untested. They aren’t something I would want to try.
Scuba masks often have a lower profile in terms of the amount of space between the eyes and the lenses to lower the air volume experiencing pressure changes at deeper depths.
Scuba masks can be purchased on a tight budget for as little as $20. However, if you plan to get prescription lenses or other special features, the price goes up from there. The highest cost you can expect to see for a scuba mask is around $200. If you prefer not to spend too much on these specialized masks, dive shops often offer rentals so you can try them out before you buy them. They will be happy to help you select a kind of mask you would most like to have in your next dive.
In scuba, the mask is the most important piece of gear needing just the right fit. However, before you decide to go all in to purchase one, you need to know what it’s used for. Scuba masks are designed to take on deep dives over 15 feet, where the extremely high pressure can affect your eyes and lungs. Scuba masks are more strongly built than snorkeling masks to handle the higher pressures.
Chances are you will be wearing the scuba mask for a long time as dives are not usually quick, so you will want to make sure you like how it feels on your face. These masks have similar options to snorkeling masks with similar lens shapes, skirting, and rubberized/silicone straps. Some straps have a speed release in case you need to take the mask off quickly in shallow water.
Full Masks vs. Half Masks
Some masks can cover the entire face like snorkeling masks, which makes it easy for divers to breathe in comfortably, and use special radio equipment underwater. Half masks, on the other hand, leave room for users to bite down on an apparatus to breathe from the scuba tank. Just realize this is still rare, and mostly used in commercial or military diving.
Most scuba mask lenses are made with tempered glass to withstand higher water pressure at deeper depths. However, some scuba masks allow for split lenses so you can custom fit them with the lenses you want to use (half masks); this can be done through the manufacturer or at a dive shop. Researching your options online or with a pro at the dive shop will help you determine your best fit mask.
Scuba masks are an investment for long-term. You need to make sure you are happy with it, and it feels good when you wear it in the water.
There are six-point straps to make sure the mask is fitting well on your face and won’t move in the higher pressures of a dive. Masks are a central piece of the whole dive kit that includes a scuba tank, BCD, fins and maybe wetsuits. You will want to make sure it fits the kind of dive you will be doing and will withstand the pressure you expect to endure.
What about snorkeling and corrective lenses? Read the Snorkeling with Glasses: Do’s and Donts post.
Originally, goggles were fashioned from motorcycle goggles. Over time they’ve become simplified and elegant yet sleek and offering slim-line protection just for the eyes. They’re made for speed and simplicity. They do not provide a method for venting water, nor do they cover your nose. The masks have minimal space between the eyes and the lenses. Normally, this will not allow for re-pressurization or venting water out of the frames.
Pricing for swim goggles
Goggles are typically anywhere from a few dollars to upwards of $50. Depending on what your intention is for them, it will vary widely on the price you may want to pay. Goggles are meant to be comfortable alternatives to swimming with your eyes irritated by chlorine in pools, or salt in the water. Typically, comfort and price are the main picking points for them.
Uses for swim goggles
Unlike scuba masks, goggles are not meant for deep diving. You probably already know that many goggles are used by kids in pools, and in shallow swimming environments for adults, but athletes in the Olympics also use them. Many competitive swimmers are looking for ergonomic design elements and comfort while not sacrificing speed while wearing them (source: Sports Fitness Advisor.)
Goggles usually can withstand short bursts of deep dives, as well. For instance, high divers jump from high diving boards but use goggles to protect their eyes from the chlorine in the pools. Cliff divers jump from heights above deep waters, but still use goggles to protect their eyes from the water below. Dive depth with goggles is usually rated, and you can view them before purchasing.
It’s easy to find the right style and options you may want in your goggles for swimming. They have adjustable rubber or silicone straps, adjustable nose fitting, and lenses that may be clear, colorized, or even prescription lenses.
Goggles can have varied lenses, straps, or even color correction to stop sunlight and glare from getting in the way of seeing. Higher-end goggles even have tempered glass to allow for longer wear life of the pair. Tempered glass is specially treated to not shatter under high pressure.
While providing minimal profile on the face, goggles come with an adjustable nose fitting and straps, so they create a tight seal over the eyes.
Other Key Differences to Note
So far, we’ve covered some of the primary differences between snorkeling masks, scuba masks, and goggles. However, there are a couple more key differences between them that’s worth noting:
If you experience a water leak while underwater—maybe the seal of your mask or goggles wasn’t tight enough, or an abrupt movement shifted them out of place—what can you do? If you’re close to the water’s surface, you can simply rise back up and dump the excess water from your goggles or snorkel mask. However, this isn’t as simple when you’re deep diving with a scuba mask.
When diving at depth, you will learn to tip your head back, slightly open the bottom of your mask and exhale through your nose. This will expel any water that has leaked in out of the bottom of the mask. Goggles, on the other hand, do not have this characteristic.
Shallow Water Swimming
Snorkeling masks and goggles only allow for shallow water experiences. Anything more than five feet, and you need to be able to breathe underwater or hold your breath for a while. While you may be able to dive down, holding your breath for short bursts, these two kinds of face protection won’t allow for extended dives due to differences in lens material and mask construction.
Although all of these masks and goggles are different, they all have a similar purpose: to provide eye protection underwater; in some cases, they can also provide protection for your nose or even your entire face.
However, whether you are swimming in the pool, out on the ocean reef, or in the depths below, you will find that goggles, snorkeling masks, or scuba masks will work great for their individual intended uses. Be sure to keep them clean for best performance.
When deciding which option you need, just remember to look at their price, function, features, and fitting to see what matches your needs. You should also research reviews, talk to dive pros, and try them on before you hit the waves.
Once you determine which underwater gear is best for you, you can get started on your next underwater adventure.