COVID-19 protection: Redesigned face masks may improve user comfort, effectiveness, says new research
Along with the publication of their study, the researchers are also making the specifications and patterns for their mask available to individuals and manufacturers across the world so that the effective design can be implemented globally.
If there’s a single personal protection accessory that is being used a lot more during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the face mask. The pandemic might be far from over, but with most countries — including India — lifting lockdowns in a phased manner, the use of such masks in public places is one of the primary preventative measures made mandatory by many governments. But when it comes to the actual compliance with mask-wearing regulations, there are a number of barriers that people experience.
While many question the effectiveness of wearing fabric or cloth masks, others tend to make mistakes that can increase their risks of infection, including improper methods of disinfection and storing.
Recent studies have indicated that the more the layers a face mask has, the better the level of protection but excess layers don’t promote breathability and many users are worried about issues like excess carbon dioxide inhalation and skin breakouts or maskne.
All of these problems are leading to non-compliance due to discomfort and doubts about effectiveness and may lead to a subsequent surge in infections.
These are just problems the researchers behind a recent study published in The Journal of the Textile Institute wanted to solve while designing a type of fabric face mask that overcomes the issues currently faced by users.
Problems with face masks
The study, conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, set out first by taking into account all the methods by which the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads and situations — like breathing recirculated air and high density of individuals in a single space — where such spread is most likely. The researchers then analysed the effectiveness and comfort of all the types of masks available in the market, from N95 masks to fabric ones, to identify why complying with regular use was becoming difficult for people.
The researchers found three major problem areas of currently-used masks:
- Most masks tend to shift involuntarily or become loose and have fitting issues. The masks do not stay in their designated position and this promotes the user’s habit of touching its surface to adjust it frequently. A mask that could stay in place would thus be ideal.
- A fabric mask usually has multiple layers, and there are leakages that occur particularly from the top and the sides - usually leading to fogging up of glasses and possibly allowing aerosolized infectious particles to leak out. This happens because your breath finds the path of least resistance out of the mask, and a sealed mask that promotes breathability could counter this issue.
- Fabric masks tend to get moist with prolonged use, thereby increasing risks of infection. Moisture repelling fabrics that still promote breathability and offer protection are therefore necessary.
Architecture of a new mask
The researchers then designed a new mask with four components in mind — barrier, form-fitting, positioning and fastening — that could effectively counter these issues. This mask has a two-part system:
- The front part or the barrier part is made with a contoured, tightly-fitted filtration material made with a blend of spandex and polyester that not only avoids breathing restrictions and speech impediments but also eliminates leakages and fogging up of glasses. This part also has a pocket with a filter that can provide self-inoculation every time the user accidentally touches the surface.
- The second part of the mask includes a large fastening system made with stretchable fabric material. Designed as a type of belt that fastens at the back of the head, this part also has two holes cut out on the sides to fit the ears. This fastening component of this mask is supposed to keep the mask in place for prolonged periods.
Along with the publication of their study, the researchers are also making the specifications and patterns for their mask available to individuals and manufacturers across the world so that the effective design can be implemented globally. The study comes with specific design instructions and the materials used can be obtained from fabric stores. With better customisation of masks using this new design, the use of fabric face masks can be more effectively followed across the world for protection against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases too.
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