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The mask: Protective gear against Covid that doubles up as a style quotient

Tevero, a textile brand, has launched anti-viral masks in India, using a technology to reduce viral activity of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by 99.99%
Today there is a mask for every reason, and a mask for every season. If you're healthy, what you need whenever you step out of home is a three-layered surgical or cloth mask. For caregivers (those taking care of patients), a surgical mask or a standard N95 without exhalation valves is good enough. But for healthcare workers it’s the surgical N95 mask that works best.

Even simple, cheap and reusable home-made masks have their place in the sun. According to pulmonologist Dr Randeep Guleria, cloth masks are effective because they prevent even asymptomatic patients from spreading infection. But they need to be worn properly, with a tight fit, and for all the time you are out, otherwise they would not offer any protection. Also, you should not to touch the mask as you could contaminate it and increase the chances of infection. 

Which is the ideal mask? 

A mask should ideally be three-layered. Says K K Aggarwal, Editor in Chief MedTalks, "The outer layer must be hydrophobic or water repellent (of Nylon) to repel germs, the innermost layer must be hydrophilic or water absorbent to take in sweat while the layer in between is that of filter. Surgical mask is ok but N-95 is best.”

What makes N-95 tick?

Are N95 masks capable of blocking the coronavirus? Yes, mostly. Simply put, the N95 is a tight-fitting face mask that filters out at least 95 per cent of large and small particles in the air. In fact, it is designed to remove particles at least 0.3 microns (µm) in diameter. The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has a size of 0.1 µm. Even though viral particles can be smaller than this, nanoparticles mainly travel by Brownian motion and are effectively captured within the N95 filter via mechanical and electrostatic forces, which makes this mask capable of filtering most viruses. It blocks both large and small respiratory droplets. Large droplets (>5 µm in diameter) tend to fall rapidly to the ground and are transmitted only over short distances. Small droplets (up to 5 µm in diameter) can evaporate and remain suspended in air for significant periods of time and could be inhaled. Non-N95 simple face covers can only provide barrier protection against large droplets but cannot filter small droplets.

Avoid using N95 masks with valves as they may increase the risk of spreading Covid-19. This is because the exhalation valves in the mask work in one direction and protect people wearing them but do not stop virus droplets from escaping and infecting others.

Some mask protocols

There are certain rules about how to wear a mask. It should have an adequate seal around the wearer’s face to ensure minimal leakage around edges of the mask when the user inhales. It must be used along with proper hand hygiene. Make sure to wash hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser before and after wearing an N95. The outside of the mask should never be touched. Even while taking the mask off, only the ear loops or strings should be used.

Certain masks must not be washed. One among the many filtration layers of the N95 is a layer of electrostatic charge that become ineffective if the mask is washed. Says Shaily Grover, Managing Director of Paramount Surgimed Limited: “Never wash or disinfect the mask as it deteriorates the quality, risking a possible breach. Every mask has a particular span of usage depending on quality and features, and should not be over-used to avoid the risks of getting infected.”

Designer Payal Jain creates customised bespoke masks by recycling natural and organic fabrics. Price: Rs 500 to 1,500 a piece

A mask a day keeps the doctor away

According to CDC guidelines, one must follow the five-day-five-masks rule. Keep a set number of N95 masks (at least 5 per the CDC), and use them in rotation each day, allowing them to dry for long enough that the virus is no longer active (> 72 hours). Proper storage for this technique requires either hanging the respirators to dry, or keeping them in a clean plastic/paper bag between uses. Make sure the masks do not touch each other, and that you do not share your masks with others.

Anything better than an N95? 

According to Dr Varun Gupta, Head of Medical Affairs at 1MG Technologies Pvt Ltd, “Respiratory masks have been categorised by the NIOSH into N, R or P series, depending on their ability to offer resistance to oil-based particles. N, or ‘not oil resistant’, can only be used for particles that do not contain oil. R is ‘somewhat resistant to oil’, while P is ‘Strongly oil proof’ (P and R meant for industrial purposes and hence not relevant in this case). The N series is further divided into N95, N99, N100 depending on the filtration efficacy. Although the N99 and N100 masks have better filtering capabilities than N95, they are also much denser and offer higher resistance to breathing, making them uncomfortable for long-term use. The N95 pollution mask filters out 95 per cent of dust and particulates and offer 50 per cent less breathing resistance than N99 pollution masks (as per some sources).” Thus, N95 masks provide the optimum balance between respiratory protection and ease of breathing. KN95, the Korean and Chinese equivalents of N95 masks, are equally effective.

What is the difference between standard N95 and surgical N95 masks? While similar in appearance, the key difference is the fluid resistance and the resulting FDA clearance of surgical masks. Surgical N95 respirators are both approved by NIOSH as an N95 respirator and also cleared by the FDA as a surgical mask. These products are frequently referred to as medical respirators, healthcare respirators, or surgical N95s.

Check before buying 

According to 1 MG CEO Prashant Tandon, “Remember, a respirator that has N95 written on it is not enough to certify its validity. The important thing to identify is the TC number. A genuine N95 mask should have all these markings mentioned on the exterior.” He says there are signs that your respirator may be fake. These include no markings at all on the mask exterior, no approval (TC) number on the mask or headband, no NIOSH markings, NIOSH spelt incorrectly, filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands, presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (such as sequins), claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children).

Your style statement

Masks have emerged as a prominent style statement across the world, what with everything from Madhubani to a Mona Lisa getting painted and printed onto the piece. For Remant Kumar Mishra, a Madhubani artist who is also known as the ‘mask man’ of Bihar, the past few months have been hectic as he has sold cover 14,000 masks with catchy slogans like ‘go corona’, ‘Namaste karna hai, haath nahi milana hai’ (‘greet each other with folded hands, don’t shake hands’).

The mask is certainly one of the coolest fashion accessories these days, says designer Payal Jain who says, “We are making bespoke masks by recycling our natural and organic fabrics. They are customised and incorporate some element of the user's personality. They are easy to wash, sanitise and wear over and over again. The band going around the ear is soft and doesn’t dig into the ear, and there is boning reinforcement which balances the mask on the bridge of the nose; a few small details we have researched and implemented over the past few months. Our mask designs are classic, in sync with our overall design philosophy, but infused with elements of ‘Indianness’ through the medium of print and embroidery.” These are priced between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500.

The idea is to celebrate and destigmatise the wearing of facemasks—either by making them more fashionable or more fun—this tends to normalise adoption. Vistaprint offers a fabric mask (not medical mask) whose cost ranges from Rs 60 to Rs 100 a piece. Says Bharath Sastry, CEO, Vistaprint India, “We have been in the business of personalisation of letterheads, pens, mugs- and now we thought you could have some amount of fun by personalising mask either by allowing the user to put his name or gift it to someone with the receiver's name or design on it.” He shares one quirky instance of how one customer designed a Michelangelo painting ‘The creation of Adam’ where the two fingers actually met and she had put them on both sides of the mask with a message ‘let the hands not touch the face’.  

Mask branding

Brands are using masks to reinforce their identities. Take the case of Puma which has launched a three-layered, washable face mask with anti-odour finish at Rs 499 for a set of two. Says Abhishek Ganguly, General Manager, India & South East Asia, Puma, “Wearing masks has become a necessity, with people venturing out for work or other day-to-day activities. As we adapt to the new normal, we expect this product line to evolve as per consumer needs and trends. Eventually, it has the potential to become a form of expression for users who look at masks as an add-on element to their apparel collections.” Jack and Jones has launched face masks in nine denim-themed designs, and reusable up to 20 times. The masks retail for Rs 299 each and are available in packs of two, three and five at Rs 499, Rs 699 and Rs 999, respectively.

The masks can be customised to include corporate logos and taglines. For this, an N95 is generally not used. What is generally used is the re-usable, non-surgical face mask with three protective layers.

Earlier people were advertising on the billboards and now they feel the face mask is the best way to push their brand. Globally you have the likes of Disney, Universal Music Group, Alice & Olivia placing logos on masks to make fun statement pieces. Brands have found a new advertising platform, and it goes right across your mouth.

Table: Masks at different price points

S No Mask type Description Price (Rs)
1 Three Ply Disposable Surgical Face Masks With a melt-blown polypropylene filtration layer. The outer layer filters out dust, odours and large particles, while the key melt blown layer filters small particles. The inner skin-care layer is a natural and anti-allergen filter. This is a disposable mask but not washable or reusable 16
Three Ply Disposable Face Masks This breathable and skin-friendly non-woven fabric mask is soft and comfortable. It has UV-C Sterilization and compatible air loops 10
N95 Without Respirator Layer 1 is made of fine mesh to filter unwanted particles and layer 2 is made of heavy melt blown filter mesh, blocks odour, virus, pollution. 3rd layer is made of hot air mesh which seamlessly blocks smaller particulates. 4th layer or extra melt blown filters remaining particulates. Layer 5 is an extra soft non-woven layer to fit the face can be worn up to 50 hrs 119
N95 With Respirator
Layer 1 is made of fine mesh to filter unwanted particles. Second layer of heavy meltblown filter mesh, blocks odour, virus, pollution. Third \layer is made of hot air mesh which seamlessly blocks smaller particulates. 4th layer or extra meltblown filters remaining particulates and Layer 5 is an extra soft non-woven layer to fit the face. Adjustable nose clip helps provide a custom fit and secure seal 
N99 With One Valve Mask ensures there is no air leakage during inhalation and has one valve providing seamless exhalation, ideal for long-term wear.  Made of soft and protective material with cords on both sides to adjust as per facial structure 349
6 N99 With Two Valves Specially designed to prevent viruses, PM0.3 pollutants, PM, PM 2.5, pollen, allergens, airborne infections, bacteria and harmful gases from entering inside the system. The mask contain microfiber inner and outer layer, filtering media, carbon filter and valves for exit of moisture and Co2  599

When should a mask be worn?
  • All sick people, while at home or outside, should wear a mask
  • Healthy people taking care of the sick
  • Healthy people going outdoors and visiting public places. Mask should not be taken off even while talking
  • Frontline and healthcare workers on duty
  • Almost everyone who is out or about to step out of house
Who should not wear a mask?
  • Children under 2 years
  • Adults with facial hair (beard, moustache) since a tight seal cannot be achieved
  • Those with breathing trouble
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance
  • Healthy people while at home 
Source: CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and MoHFW (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, GoI)

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