Cloth mask quality is next challenge

Drape Mask To Protect The Mouth  - ivabalk / Pixabay
ivabalk / Pixabay

Cloth masks have taken over the market. Largely due to shortages and compelling need, Etsy has suddenly become the top seller of face masks. Etsy, of course, is not a mask company. It’s an e-commerce website through which small enterpreneurs can sell handmade or vintage items. This has turned what might be called the “fashionable mask industry” upside-down. However, as cloth masks will likely be in demand through 2021, cloth mask quality will be a big issue.

Leading mask manufacturers overwhelmed

The top four sellers of fashionable protective face masks prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were arguably Respro and Cambridge Masks based in the UK which had in the neighborhood of $27 million USD in revenue, followed by Vogmask and RZ Masks based in the US, which had in the neighborhood of $6 million in revenue. All four companies were caught off guard for two reasons: 1) The sheer demand had them sell out quickly. 2) The purpose for wearing a mask changed from protecting the wearer from pollution to protecting others from COVID-19. One of the biggest assets for each of these companies has now become a liability–the exhalation valve.

The exhalation valve was a godsend when the goal was to maximize mask comfort. But it became a liability when it came to protecting other people. Exhalation valves release unfiltered air, which does zero to protect others. As of today, the American companies are adjusting more quickly to this change. Maybe it’s because they are smaller and perhaps better able to pivot. RZ Masks has introduced a valve cap so that all exhaled air has to exit through the filter. Vogmask will soon have valveless masks available (as of today, they were still “Coming Soon.”) Respro and Cambridge Mask Co. have yet to offer valveless masks.

New players, new innovations

In addition to handcrafted masks from Etsy, other companies have jumped into the market because they’ve seen a need. Everyone from clothing retailers like Banana Republic DXL, to workwear retailer Rendall, to apparel and bag retailers Herschel Supply and Tom Bihn, to outdoor apparel company Outdoor Research, and even custom printing company Vistaprint is getting into the game because the need has been so great. However, my experience is that insertion of brand names into the marekt doesn’t always mean cloth mask quality.

There are a few other innovations worth mentioning that improve cloth mask quality. One is a silicone face mask frame which holds the cloth mask away from the face to facilitate easy breathing. Inhaling has caused some cloth masks to cling to the nose and mouth, makng breathing difficult. There are also mask ear savers which are designed to take the pressure off the ears

Another interesting development is the availability of filtration materials for homemade masks. Many “homemade style” masks have a sewn-in pocket to acccommodate a filter. Filters had never been interchangeable between brands of masks. This resulted in filters sometimes being astronomically expensive. It’s like the cheap printer with astronomically expensive replacement cartridges.

About that filter

One “standard” filter that has emerged is the “standard PM 2.5 filter” often offered alongside many cloth masks. The problem is that the filter often is not large enough to cover the entire breathing space. Nature loves a vacuum, and air will immediately find a way to get around barriers. That’s why the best masks seal tightly enough so that any inhaled air must go through the filter. A better option, however, is filter material made by Filti. You can buy individual filters or buy it by the roll and cut to fit the face masks you have. While the seal will never be 100%, there is likely to be less leakage as long as filter is cut to the right size. This N95 filtration material greatly enhances cloth mask quality.

Of course, only single use respirators and cartridge respirators can really provide that ideal seal. About a year ago, I began to look into non-cloth masks. This was out of frustration with the cloth-based anti-pollution masks that just couldn’t seem to seal well. But after spending some time exploring such masks, I also realized that the results were often less comfortable than cloth. In any case, most of the masks have valves, which are not an option with COVID-19.

I predict that people will demand greater quality from their masks in the coming months. Perhaps the most important is easy breathability. Certainly many of the homemade mask entrepreneurs have been innovative. But ultimately, people will grow tired of the homemade cloth masks if they aren’t easy to breathe through.

It will be about breathability and ability to protect

I talked to a woman on the bus yesterday who said she was tired of wearing a mask. What annoyed me is that she kept on lifting her mask to talk. She needed to do so because the mask muffled her voice in a significant way. I hear muffling like this quite often–even on the radio when people are being interviewed. My experience is that there are plenty of effective masks out there that don’t muffle the voice .

I also predict that there will be a significant number of people who will want their masks to filter more. This will be especially given the number of people refusing to wear masks, particularly in the US. More and more, people will demand masks protecting themselves as effectively as they protect others. All masks are going to have a caveat that they can’t guarantee 100% protection against viruses. But 95%-99% protection will be increasingly in demand. I think people are going to favor masks with lab-tested filtration ratings over just “face coverings.” Because this pandemic is not going away soon. Many are predicting a new surge of cases in the fall,. This would be similar to what happened with the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic.

Going into 2021

In this blog, I wrote a three-part series about the development of mask fashion from the early 20th century through the 2010s. We are clearly in a new chapter at this point, one that is still being written. It started with a surge of cloth masks to meet the overwhelming demand, and is continuing to evolve in its own way. But cloth mask quality will almost certianly be part of the next step in the evolution of COVID masks, as the need for masks will continue into and possibly through 2021. Even with people resisting mask-wearing tooth and nail, we might be reaching a point now where mask-wearing in the US is considered “normal,” even if no longer required.