Face masks have officially had a larger-than-anyone-could-have-anticipated presence in our lives for over a year. We’ve been urged to don them whenever we’re outside of the home since March of 2020, and since then we’ve seen many innovations on the mask front. Regular cloth face masks have become available nearly everywhere and in a wide range of styles from some of our favorite retailers. Face masks have been developed specifically for running and cycling, being disposed of and filtering out the maximum number of particles in KN95 and N95 form. The last two already existed, but have become more widely available in response to shortages early on in the pandemic, and are accessible to the public.
That’s our face mask past, but what does our face mask future look like? Face masks are distinct from the latest tech gadget release or wrist watch trend because they’re worn on our faces and are charged with protecting us. These are two very intimate responsibilities for an accessory to hold, making it a breeding ground for the fashion and tech industries to improve both functions in weird, whacky, innovative ways. CES 2021 made it clear that wearable tech has ventured into the face mask realm and produced some futuristic-looking masks that are sci-fi-esque, to say the least. I’ll explore more of those later.
There’s also a lot of discussion around the future of face masks from a medical standpoint. How long do you have to wear a mask after being vaccinated for COVID-19? Is double masking necessary? Is there any sort of timeline for when masks won’t be a part of our lives anymore? These practical, science-based questions are also a part of our face mask future, and I’ll also be discussing them in this piece.
The truth of the matter is that the future of face masks could go in many different directions, but one thing’s for certain: they’re here to stay for a while. Please wear one when you’re interacting with anyone outside your quarantine bubble, and please follow local medical guidelines. If you want our future to be face-mask-free, it’s one of the best ways you can personally work to make that happen.
Part I: Future of Face Masks, Medically Speaking
How Long Will We Be Wearing Masks?
In the U.S., Dr. Fauci has said it’s possible we could be wearing masks into 2022. He’s avoided a specific timeline because there are so many factors that contribute to when face masks will no longer be necessary, but he has said we’ll be “approaching normalcy” by the end of this year. Many more people need to be vaccinated and community transmission of the virus needs to reach much lower numbers in order for masks to become unnecessary, but we’re on our way there.
If I’ve Been Vaccinated, Do I Still Need to Wear a Mask?
14% of the U.S. population has received at least their first vaccine dose. That’s a lot, and we’re on a solid trajectory to vaccinate much more people by the end of this year. That’s begged the question about masks post-vaccination, and how necessary they’ll be. The answer is — for now, they’re still necessary.
Joe Biden has said that masks are mandatory for at least the first 100 days of his presidency, but it’s highly likely we’ll be wearing them much longer than that. According to Dr. Hamblin, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and lecturer at Yale School of Public Health, whether or not you need to wear a mask post-vaccine depends on two things, which he describes here at length in his “Ask Dr. Hamblin” column. They are:
- We’re still not 100% sure a vaccinated person can’t still transmit the virus, and because the far majority of people still aren’t vaccinated this risk is too great to abandon masks post-vaccine
- We need entire communities to be vaccinated, not just an individual within a community, in order for the vaccine to be effective on a large scale. If almost everyone in a community is vaccinated, the chances of getting the virus and spreading it become fewer and farther between
Dr. Hamblin summarizes it best when he says “It’s easy to become numb to the numbers of people who are getting sick and dying every day, and let the annoyance of masks feel somehow more comparably urgent than it is. But even if the mortality rate were cut in half, and then cut in half again, we’d still be losing hundreds of people every day. For the foreseeable future, even among the vaccinated, masks will at the very least be symbols of solidarity and empathy.”
What About in Countries Outside the U.S?
Masks are more of a normal occurrence, pandemic or not, in other countries, especially those in Asia and Southeast Asia. The 2003 SARS outbreak left a lasting impact on the perception of masks and mask wearing in China, Taiwan and South Korea. They’re much more common and a sign of respect in that they prevent coughs and sneezes from reaching those around you. This could very well end up happening in the US.
If masks do become more normalized in the U.S, my guess is that they’ll be most common in large cities and in large public spaces within those cities. Public transportation, airports, grocery stores and shopping malls will probably see more masks than the average park in the suburbs. They already feel quite normal for me, and I’m sure they’ll be common for years to come.
What About Social Distancing?
Wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing are all healthy practices we can and should continue to do in an effort to keep our communities healthy. As evidenced by the unusually low seasonal flu numbers this year, these methods work at decreasing the spread of illness and disease, and if they stick around there’s only a benefit.
What About Double Masking?
2021, alongside a bundle of promising vaccines, has brought with it new mask guidance from the CDC that includes double masking. With more contagious variants circulating, double masking is a way to further protect yourself by upgrading your standard cloth mask and wearing a medical mask underneath it. This secures the gaps in the edges more and provides more layers of protection. Basically, double masking amplifies the protectiveness of both masks you’re wearing and further protects those around you.
Face Masks and Fashion
One thing that definitely boosts face masks’ reputation and could help it further transition from a public health tool to a long-term accessory is the idea of luxury. The fashion world adopting face masks into curated outfits, rather than them simply being a regulated piece of PPE, has already extended their shelf life in countries across the world. Face masks becoming a tool of self-expression rather than a hindrance on everyday lives is what will expand their reach beyond something people want to be rid of. U.S designers have already embraced this trend, and now the tech industry is next.
Wearable tech has started creating high-tech face masks that filter particles at faster speeds, make it easier to breathe and look like an expansive, futuristic gadget some people will want to wear. CES showcased some futuristic face masks that explore some of the greatest downsides to face masks currently — difficulty breathing, difficulty understanding people, etc and attempt to change them with innovation. These masks go beyond $20 for a pack of four made of cloth, and move towards a piece of equipment you invest in and take care of, like other tech. Many of the face masks below exceed $100 in cost, but make up for it in technological advancements. They could be phased out once case levels drop steeply or, like your iPad or Kindle, become a gadget you can’t get on a plane without.
We’re going to walk you through some of these up and coming options below, some of which are conceptual and some of which are real products available for purchase. Overall, face masks are becoming smarter — with more technology, more problem-solving capabilities and more moves away from a piece of fabric tied across your face.
1. Razer + Project Hazel
You can read an in-depth piece on Razer and their quest to build “The World’s Smartest Mask” through Project Hazel here from our tech editor Adrian, who attended CES 2021.
They’ve created a prototype of this smart mask that focuses on five key areas of safety and quality of life, and elevates the standard mask to something you could, theoretically, wear every day. It’s theoretically a surgical N95 respirator that has high bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) as well as fluid resistance built in for protection against droplets and splashes. It has a detachable ventilator that can filter out 95% of particles in the air, and it comes with a charging case lined with a bacteria-killing UV light.
It has a clear, transparent design so people can see your mouth moving when you speak, and small lights that detect when it’s dark out so you can still be seen. It also has a built-in microphone and an amplifier to ensure your voice isn’t muffled. The mask is built sustainably with durable materials that’ll last a long time. Again, this is all theoretical as of now.
2. AusAir Face Mask
AusAir is an Australian company that’s designed an elevated face mask with two-way filtration valves, cushioned ear loops and a memory foam nose bridge for comfort. The masks also come with breathable filters that filter out >99% of viral, bacterial and PM0.1 and last up to 28 days. This company was actually founded in 2017 to protect Australians from harmful pollutants in the air as a result of wildfires and otherwise.
I was sent a pack of AusAir masks to try out first-hand, and they definitely feel more purposefully designed than most of my other face masks. The ear loops are soft and the structure allows for plenty of breathing room. The valves are easy to switch in and out, and the filters are easy to replace. Overall, the mask is a bit heavier than some of my other cloth face masks and slightly less comfortable because of the added bulk. However, it does feel more high tech and more protective.
3. LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier
Another CES reveal was this high-tech mask from LG, the maker of some of our favorite OLED TVs and other gadgets. They’ve dipped their toes into the pool of sophisticated face masks and created a mask with dual inverter fans and a respirator sensor that detects the rhythm and volume of the wearer’s breath. According to this information, the DUAL inverter fans adjust their speeds to make breathing easier. HEPA filters on either side of the mask filter out 99% of harmful particles, and the mask has an ergonomic design that hugs the face comfortably, minimizing air leakage in either direction. Currently, the only authorized online retailers via LG are lesser-known by US standards, but the mask is available for purchase for around $150 USD.
4. Lumen LED Matrix Face Mask
This face mask from Lumen has fewer technological advancements but does have an LED screen where you can design you own message using your smartphone. You can use your phone’s microphone or music to use the equalizer effect and showcase the varying sound levels, and all the electronics are removable for cleaning purposes. The mask itself has dual-cotton layers and mesh material that gives the LEDs flexibility. You can also remove the tech components for better air circulation, and it comes with a battery and charging cord.
This face mask just makes techno-logical sense when you think about it. Your ear loops are so close to your AirPods anyways, why not just combine them? This company created a face mask with earbuds built-in so you can listen to music or talk on the phone while still protecting yourself and others. The mask also features replaceable N95/FFP2 filters, and a simple design making it a convenient and stylish hybrid of mask technology. It also has a built-in microphone to make sure your voice comes through clearly even when you’re wearing a mask, so you’re less likely to adjust it or take it off while on the phone.
6. AirPop Active+ Halo Smart Mask
This face mask from AirPop comes with a Halo sensor that analyzes how you breathe and gives you feedback about it and your mask’s performance in real time via an app. Post-pandemic, we’re all going to be much more aware of the air we’re breathing and what could be in it, and this mask illustrates that.
Once connected, the LED inhale/exhale ring gives you breath rate, and the app’s dashboard shows you protection levels, filter life, and the air quality index in your area.
The mask also has 360 degree sealing and a super light construction designed to be as comfortable as possible to wear. The 3D structure gives you plenty of room to breathe and the materials are low-resistance so you breathe easier. This mask also has 99.3% particle filtration and fluid resistance.
7. Aō Atmōs Face Mask
This face mask has got to be one of the most futuristic ones we’ve seen. It’s being developed in Auckland, New Zealand and is only available for pre-order at the moment, but it sure does look intriguing. It boasts 5-25x better protection than the N95 via independent validation and is designed to allow for free breathing around the mouth and nose. The mask is open on top around your nose, so airflow goes in one direction and continuously allows clean air to enter. A Bluetooth sensor within the mask tracks your breathing activity as well as the mask’s performance so you’re always protected as much as possible.
8. Blanc Modular Mask
We promise we’re not messing with you with this one. This is real, it only exists as a funding campaign on IndieGogo and a few other sites but it’s in development for all you aspirational members of Daft Punk out there for whom regular face masks don’t suffice. It’s called the Blanc, and it’s a HEPA-filter-equipped face mask that’s going to be customizable. The face mask will have a voice modulation function as well as climate control and Bluetooth capabilities, both of which have been promised as additions post-launch.
This face mask promises to be a unique and places a special emphasis on showing off your style as well as staying protected. It has an air-tight fit behind the egg, so every breath goes through the SGS-tested replaceable filter during inhalation and exhalation, to keep the environment clean around you. You can find out more about Blanc using the link below, the first batch of shipments is set to go out in just a few weeks.