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The Quad: Uncovering the culture and science behind the face masks that keep you covered

Homemade fashionable masks are in high demand – Etsy received a total of 9 million searches for face masks in a span of 3 days. (Daanish Bhatti/Daily Bruin)

By Passa Pungchai

May 15, 2020 7:32 p.m.

Throw away your fashion catalogs because it seems there’s only one trend that will endure 2020’s uncertainty: the face mask.

From medical-grade to DIY, masks have been put in high demand because of the COVID-19 health crisis – and it’s important to know what’s what. We’re discussing face masks, from their popularity in past decades to their current role in stopping the spread of coronavirus.

First things first, there are a couple of things to get straight. Some masks do more than others, and some types – such as surgical masks and the N95 – are classified as personal protective equipment, or PPE. These types of masks are characterized by their ability to provide the most effective barriers to block the spread of infection. As a result, these masks are important for health care workers fighting the pandemic on the front lines, and officials have warned the public not to hoard them in order to prioritize their own health.

Even these PPE masks, however, are not able to eliminate the possibility of the virus entering one’s system. N95 masks, for example, filter about 95% of particles that are at least 0.3 microns in size. The problem is that the COVID-19 virus can range from 0.06 to 0.12 microns, UCLA bioengineering professor Benjamin Wu said in a live presentation to alumni engineers.

“The coronavirus is not in the high collection efficiency range (of the N95),” Wu said in the presentation. “That size range is actually very difficult for some filters to make. So, as we make our own filter materials, we actually have to make sure that we are capturing that size discrepancy.”

Wu and his team decided there was more to be done and set out to make an even more efficient type of mask. The team tested various filtering materials with machines to control particle size and effectively test filtration to improve on existing mask designs for COVID-19 filtering.

They designed six new prototypes of the Powered Air Purifying Respirator machines, a mask-helmet that can cover the head and provide respiratory protection. The devices are durable, battery-powered and protect against 99.7% of particles measuring at or above 0.3 microns in size.

The team also worked to improve face shields and are looking into scaling up for manufacturing. In addition, the face-shield design has been approved for 3D printing distribution.

Though these PPE masks and professional devices like the PAPR will most likely be allotted to health care workers first and foremost, there are face mask options we can turn to for everyday use.

Cloth masks can help prevent people from transmitting a virus through their respiratory droplets. (Daanish Bhatti/Daily Bruin)

For example, cloth masks do not have the ability to filter out small particles, but according to Healthline, they can still help to stop the spread of a virus at the community level. Cloth masks covering the nose and mouth can prevent people from transmitting a virus via respiratory droplets, and they’re officially recommended by the CDC.

Luckily, cloth masks are generally obtainable and the CDC offers instructions to make them in a handful of ways depending on what materials you have on hand. For those not interested in making a mask, you can purchase them online – for example, handmade e-commerce site Etsy has blown up with masks for sale; the site even revealed that from April 4 to April 6, users searched for masks for 9 times per second on average, summing to a grand total of 9 million searches in a span of 3 days .

[ICYMI: Alumna brightens up pandemic with affordable, colorful masks]

As we see more people complying with official recommendations to wear masks, it’s interesting to note that 2020 is not the first time that they’ve been widely used. In fact, in some parts of the world, non-PPE masks have been a common garment for decades.

According to Quartz, wearing a mask became common in Japan during the 1918 flu pandemic. It became common to cover one’s face with some sort of cloth, scarf or shawl as a precaution to safeguard against the virus.

This mask habit persisted post-World War II, as Japan recovered from the war and more industrialization led to greater pollution. Worsening air quality compelled citizens to wear masks for respiratory health. Comparatively, neighboring countries such as Korea and China experienced similar trends in mask-wearing.

In addition, non-PPE fabric masks have been studied as a nonverbal way to signal social isolation. Japanese psychologists have theorized that young Japanese people may wear masks and headphones to show a lack of desire to socialize.

Somewhere along the way, masks transitioned to more than just a health precaution. For some people, they have become a fashion statement as well.

In 2014, a Chinese fashion designer created a “smog couture” line of clothing, referencing the country’s pollution problems. The fashion line included a set of masks with Darth Vader-esque ventilators and riot gear face shields. More recently, pop star Billie Eilish sported a Gucci face mask to the 2020 Grammys.

Interestingly, members of the fashion industry have also taken an interest in masks in order to educate.

Fashion designers are using social media to teach the public how to make masks in order to alleviate the shortage of pre-made ones. Lia Kes of sustainable clothing brand Kes began selling up-cycled silk and cotton masks on her website and donates a face mask to a health care worker for each mask purchased.

Whether you wore them before the pandemic, or masks are a whole new thing for you, experts are reminding folks to treat masks the way they would treat their own clothes. Masks should be washed in warm water with soap and dried overnight to stay clean. Continual use of masks can cause chafing, irritation and acne breakouts, so it’s also important to have a regular skin-cleansing routine as well.

Whatever kind of mask you’re wearing, the reality is that it seems we’re all going to be wearing them for quite a bit longer. For health care providers, masks are an essential way to stay healthy on the job; for Billie Eilish, a Gucci mask may function as both a fashion accessory and protective gear.

Our face coverings may not be PPE-grade or designer, but the important thing is that everyone does their best to stop the spread in whatever ways we can.

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