If the pandemic had a mascot, it might be a simple face mask. Nothing better encapsulates the COVID-19 era than the pleas and protests that surround mask usage—and the mass confusion that has accompanied 2020’s must-have accessory.
At first, officials told the public to skip these face coverings, amid worries that mask mandates would cause a shortage of medical-grade masks suitable for hospitals. After a couple months, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO) changed their tune, calling for mask use when social distancing is not possible. The CDC now recommends that members of the general public wear cloth face coverings whenever possible. As of July 7, mask wearing is the law in at least 21 states and countless municipalities throughout the United States.
Yet masks are still taboo in some social circles. Only 60 percent of adults said they always wear masks when they leave home, according to a recent Morning Consult-National Geographic survey. Compliance varied by age, geographical region, income level, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—political viewpoint. In Boise, Idaho, some people are so annoyed by the concept of mask mandates that they’ve taken to burning free ones handed out by health offices.
It’s easy to blame such activities on partisan politics. But apart from that, mask aversion may center on the fact that masks can look unstylish or be uncomfortable depending on the shape of one’s face. To some degree, they rob humans of their ability to socialize via smiles, frowns, or other facial cues. And after hearing early conflicting messages about the usefulness of masks, some people may just be confused about when and where to don one.
Is there such a thing as an effective mask that everyone will want to wear? National Geographic contacted engineers, physicists, psychologists, and fashion designers to find out.
A matter of physics
SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, may seem invincible, but it’s still subject to the laws of physics. Researchers who study fluid dynamics—the branch of science devoted to the behavior of liquids and gases—have built models and computer simulations of what happens when viral particles are spewed into the air. (See how a sneeze can launch germs much farther than 6 feet.)
When a person coughs or sneezes, they produce a cloud of droplets. Larger droplets fall to the ground relatively quickly but the smallest ones, known as aerosols, float instead. As they linger, they’re bombarded with a variety of forces, from gravity to turbulence to the molecular jittering known as Brownian motion, which pushes particles in random directions—sometimes over distances long enough to cover a room.
There’s growing evidence that aerosols can transmit SARS-CoV-2, and that the virus can linger in the air for hours. Though it still emphasizes large droplets as the primary route of transmission, the WHO reiterated on July 9 that airborne spread can happen in hospitals. The organization also acknowledged, for the first time, the possibility of aerosol transmission in other indoor settings such as choir practices and fitness classes—but added that airborne spread in those settings wasn’t definitively confirmed yet.
If airborne coronavirus is a major player in the pandemic, some health recommendations may need an update. Social distancing might require more than six feet; guidance that has made the outdoors seem like a sanctuary for those who want to recreate or socialize might be in peril. For example, measles is infamous for spreading via aerosols, and its highly contagious transmission has even been suspected at outdoor festivals.
In a world with airborne coronavirus, masks could be crucial to returning to some semblance of normal. Recent evidence estimates the risk of catching or transmitting SARS-CoV-2 is 3 percent when wearing a mask, compared to 17 percent without one. These face protectors could help society hang on until treatments and an eventual vaccine are developed.
A matter of design
Now as before the pandemic, medical professionals generally use surgical masks or N95 respirators, specialized devices designed to filter out large and small infectious droplets before they enter people’s airways. But due to continued shortages and the sheer scale of the pandemic, the general public is being asked to opt for cloth masks instead. Cloth face coverings offer some security to the wearer, but their main intent is to protect others by stopping droplets in their tracks.
So far, though, there’s been relatively little research about how homemade masks affect droplet spread. Siddhartha Verma, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University’s department of ocean and mechanical engineering, wanted to change that. He was up against a fundamental truth of fluid mechanics: “We don’t get to see what the air is doing.”
So Verma enlisted the help of a mannequin, a smoke machine, and a laser. His team hollowed out the mannequin’s head to mimic the nasal passages of your average human and mounted it at the height of an average man. Then, they fitted it with a variety of cloth masks and mimicked coughs with the smoke machine. The laser illuminated the simulated coughs and allowed the researchers to map the path of a cough’s output.
The test produced a few clear winners. While droplets from the average cough traveled around eight feet from an uncovered face, they went only 2.5 inches when produced behind a mask made of two layers of simple cotton quilting fabric. A mask made from a folded handkerchief produced droplets that traveled a bit over a foot. A loose, single-ply cotton bandana didn’t fare as well: While it prevented some fluid release, the cough’s plume still traveled nearly four feet.
“Whenever you have the option, use tightly woven fabric that has minimal leakage,” Verma concludes. “Any sort of covering is better than none.”
A handful of the cough jets went farther than expected, some as far as 12 feet—an argument for social distancing if ever there was one. And every mask tested leaked through the nose bridge area. Basically, no mask was perfect at stopping transmission, Verma says—confirming ongoing recommendations to combine masks with social distancing, handwashing, and other practices whenever possible. (Here's the best way to clean your face mask.)
A matter of function—and fashion
Even with mounting evidence that masks slow disease transmission, people may be less likely to wear masks they find uncomfortable, restrictive, or an impediment to breathing freely.
That doesn’t have to be the case, says electronic engineer Muhammad Mustafa Hussain. He and his fellow researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia recently developed a way to manufacture materials that could one day enable more breathable protection for all.
The innovation is a stamp laced with pores less than a hundred nanometers wide, a third of the size of the holes on N95 masks. The stamp can be used to emboss this nanopattern onto a thin, flexible membrane, which can then be applied to a mask like a sticker. Despite their very small diameter, the nanopores allow for plentiful airflow, so the resulting material is breathable, repels water, and can be reused and sterilized. The researchers estimate it could be made for about 50 cents per unit.
Hussain says he has already licensed the technology to three companies that plan to use it for both medical and commercial masks. He says the method, which could be used to construct pores as small as five nanometers wide, might eventually yield nanoporous fabric that people could use to make better masks at home.
“I would like to change the way we interact with the physical world,” says Hussain, who envisions a network of laundromat-like sanitation stations that could sterilize masks for the masses. “Every time I talk to someone, I can see new ideas start.”
Economists, entrepreneurs, and engineers are also investigating more creative solutions. But the fashion industry deserves a seat at the table, too, says Grace Jun, an assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design and CEO of Open Style Lab, an accessible design nonprofit.
“I don’t think we’ve seen enough collaboration,” says Jun.
Designers and couturiers got involved in mask production as soon as the lockdowns began, but their efforts have been largely focused on the needs of front-line healthcare workers and prestige customers. To truly meld innovative form with fashion savvy, says Jun, fashion and technology must join forces.
“Designing for the most marginalized creates innovation,” she says. Jun encourages designers to solicit input from people of all ability levels, races, and socioeconomic strata and to consider the cultural connotations of masks as they come up with new designs.
Open Style Lab developed a pattern for a DIY, reusable cloth mask and a plastic mask cover that takes the needs of healthcare workers and people with disabilities into consideration. Jun says it’s just the beginning: “There are so many more exciting ways we can experiment with what this means for fashion.”
A matter of psychology
High-tech features and appealing designs could make mask-wearing more palatable. But can they encourage people to wear masks all the time?
Not necessarily, says Danielle Hartigan, an associate professor of health studies at Bentley University who specializes in behavioral science. Potential mask-wearers “have to perceive that a situation is severe and that they are personally susceptible.”
In other words, it takes more than a mask mandate for people to fall in line. And that’s not even counting the thorny issue of politics; Morning Consult’s survey and recent Gallup data show a nearly 30-point spread between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to mask use.
Comfort, perceived risk, design, politics—it can seem as if the stars have to align perfectly to make people wear masks. But change takes time, and while it might feel like the pandemic has been going on for centuries, widespread mask use is only months old in the United States.
People need education and targeted messaging to prime them to pick up their masks over and over again, says Hartigan. For mask-wearing to be effective, it must become a habit. “A sustained behavior change isn’t just going to be one and done,” she says. “It’s not like getting a vaccine.”
Making mask-wearing ubiquitous may come down to the actions of each individual, says Hartigan. Social norms help drive behavior change, and mask wearing is already becoming a perceived norm. (Here's how to stop the virus from winning.)
In May and June, Hartigan and her colleagues at the Risk and Social Policy Working Group, a team of scholars working to tackle risk messaging and public policy during the pandemic, polled 3,000 people in six states. About 66 percent said they always wear a face covering in public, indoor spaces.
The more those numbers rise, the more normal wearing a mask might seem. It isn’t clear how long the world will have to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine—or the ultimate mask design. In the meantime, the best option may simply be to don a cotton mask, take a deep if uncomfortable breath, and work on making masks feel run-of-the-mill. After all, the perfect mask is useless if it never makes it onto someone’s face.