Cloth Face Masks Might Soon Have Certification Labels (and It Could Be a Game Changer)
There may soon be a uniform set of standards for cloth face masks that will convey exactly how effective certain models are.
In March, health experts and government officials recommended that everyone should wear masks when they leave the house to limit the spread of COVID-19. At the time, there was still so much to learn about the nature of the virus, and we’re still learning. But the general consensus has been that wearing something on your face is better than nothing.
In the months that followed, various research has emerged showing which masks are the most effective. And the CDC now says there's growing evidence masks protect the wearer, not just others. But there are still a ton of different masks available to consumers, with more hitting the market all the time.
To help consumers identify the masks that work best, ASTM International, an organization that develops and implements technical standards, is working with manufacturers and governing bodies to set guidelines for how effective face masks should be and how they should be labeled. Companies like 3M, Honeywell and DuPont have been involved in the process.
They haven’t reached a consensus yet, according to the Washington Post, and it’s led to debates over whether the standards should be looser, for the sake of a bigger pool of masks, or stricter, at risk of potentially “scaring companies away from making any significant upgrades.”
Jeffrey Stull, president of International Personnel Protection, which is organizing the group discussions, called the process a “nightmare.”
“We really see a whole spectrum,” he told the Washington Post. “Some individuals say we need a standard, we need to get that standard out, let’s make it a bit more lenient. And then we have some people who say, ‘No, this has to be absolutely right.’
Masks are a divisive topic in some circles, despite the scientific community almost unanimously saying that they help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Most dissent comes from people complaining that they are uncomfortable, or don’t feel like they should be forced to wear something they don’t want to wear.
Regardless, masks have become a staple in retail and in the promotional products industry. Decorators are putting restaurant logos on them for people returning to work, and they’re available as branded merchandise in just about every brand's e-commerce store.
They’re not going away any time soon. President-Elect Joe Biden supported national mandatory mask wearing, and said he would rely on local governments to implement that program. Pfizer's vaccine has shown real promise and looks like it will be fast-tracked for approval, but widespread distribution won't happen overnight. Even after it is distributed, some level of mask use may be necessary.
With masks set to be a part of life for a while, labels that clearly show their effectiveness seem like a good idea. If the scientific and manufacturing communities agree on a standard, it could open the door for safer reopening for more businesses. People would know exactly how well the masks all around them are working, and they would know the risk of spread is lower.
Just as N95 masks (which remain in short supply despite being mostly reserved for the health care community) are proven effective for medical use, cloth masks that meet the standard could deliver similar peace of mind for the average consumer, if not the same filtration level as an N95 or equivalent. We know there's a wide gap between an N95 mask and a bandana, but the gap in effectiveness between any given cloth mask and another is still largely unclear.
The testing process to get to that point will require figuring what size particles the masks should be tested against, whether or not they’ll fit on the wearer’s face securely, and what other certifications they might require.
Also, The Washington Post reported that the FDA hasn’t been involved in the process so far, but if down the road manufacturers and companies advertised their masks by claiming they prevent COVID-19, they could have to submit their testing data to the FDA to verify their claims.
“Whether it’s a standard or whether it’s something equivalent to the Consumer Reports [rating] of good, better or best, it is probably useful because otherwise people are lost,” Philip Harber, professor of public health at the University of Arizona, told the Washington Post.
From a business standpoint, should this standard go into effect tomorrow, customers that work in environments where safety is paramount will be demanding any masks that meet that standard. It would be like if construction companies were choosing between OSHA-certified hard hats or non-certified ones. A certified face mask would be immediately targeted to businesses that are customer-facing or working in person—restaurants, gyms, hospitality. All of these would be looking for certified face masks so people feel comfortable returning.
On a very basic public health level, there would still be room for non-certified face masks, so companies that don't upgrade their manufacturing or submit their masks for testing wouldn't necessarily be left entirely out to dry.
“This standard is targeted at the commercial manufacturers producing the vast majority of masks being sold today,” Jennifer Marshall, program manager for public safety standards coordination at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told Quartz. “The standard could provide helpful information to guide smaller manufacturers and makers, so they might produce a competitive product. Consumers will ultimately determine if standard-conforming masks are needed in their specific circumstance or application.”
There's still a ways to go on this, as the organizers are working out how exactly they'll test masks and what a certification would look like. But, should it come together, you can expect demand for certified masks from end-buyers in customer-facing verticals for at least as long as we all need to wear masks, which seems like it could be a while.