Masks aren’t going anywhere, but the next generation will be safer, smarter and more sustainable.
The speed at which human beings adapt is incredible. When state and local governments began instituting mask mandates in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of wearing face coverings in restaurants, grocery stores and airports was strange. Most Americans didn’t even own a mask, let alone wear one every day.
Just a year later, however, masks are both routine and pervasive. So much so that consumers who once knew nothing about masks now are fluent in the finest points of mask fit, function and style. They know, for example, that masks are only effective if they cover both the mouth and the nose. They know that a close fit is more protective than a relaxed fit, and that natural fabrics with tight weaves are more protective than synthetic fabrics with loose ones. They understand that disposable masks should be thrown away after a single use, and that reusable masks should be washed regularly in hot water. They also know that, as the CDC recommends, masks with multiple layers are better than masks with single layers, and that they can maximize their protection by wearing two masks instead of one. And they know that the N95 respirator, when properly worn is critical for helping to protect health care and other workers battling the pandemic on the front lines.
Comprehending and accepting masks is not the same as embracing them, however. Even as they’ve assimilated masks into their daily routines, many Americans have been eagerly anticipating the day that they can throw theirs in the garbage. Every time they loop a mask around their ears, they make a wish for a post-mask world and hope that it comes true soon.
But here’s the truth: Masks are probably here to stay.
And that might not be such a bad thing. After all, masks can provide protection from a range of threats that will outlast and outlive the COVID-19 pandemic, including seasonal colds and flus, allergens and even pollution. That can be life-changing and life-extending for Americans who work in public-facing jobs like healthcare, transportation and retail; for Americans who have underlying health conditions and even for everyday consumers, many of who have gained from the coronavirus a newfound appreciation for the merits of personal and public health. People in many countries have culturally adopted mask-wearing after understanding the public health benefits they can provide.
If you absolutely hate wearing masks, don’t panic. Tomorrow’s masks will probably look a lot different than the ones you own today, starting with when and how often they’re worn. In April 2021, the CDC said that it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to forgo masks outdoors in small groups. But vaccinated people should still wear masks indoors and outside in crowded places. Mask usage by the general public will be more selective. Instead of wearing masks every day, everywhere, consumers likely will keep masks on hand and wear them in places and at times of year when they feel more vulnerable to pathogens or pollutants. For example, you might see more masks in public spaces during winter, when cold and flu viruses are going around. Likewise, you might see more masks on public transit and in airports, even if you see fewer in restaurants and grocery stores. Masks will probably be more common in urban areas than in rural areas, and may be more prevalent on days or in places with poor air quality ratings. Now that we understand masks’ benefits, they will become another tool in our toolbox that we can use when we need or want extra protection.
Meanwhile, expect employers in many sectors to build and maintain stockpiles of masks in preparation for future emergencies, and to implement some new workplace safety requirements that mandate masks, including N95 respirators. While such measures would have been impossible to accommodate a year ago, supply chain improvements—including increased domestic production—mean that occupational health and business continuity are promises that companies can not just make, but also keep.
And then there are masks themselves. Especially for essential workers who wear them for hours at a time, masks can be hot and uncomfortable. They lack breathability, leave marks on the face, hurt the ears and create tension around the head. But the next generation of face coverings will be superior in shape, fit, comfort and protection. Like software developers, PPE designers are approaching mask design through the lens of user experience (UX) to arrive at products that will be tailored equally to consumers’ faces and consumers’ lifestyles. We’ll see a convergence in functionality, fashion and smart technology for the next generation of PPE. Consider the innovative Xupermask by will.i.am. He invented the mask to be fashionable and functional, he said.
It’s not just people who will benefit from next-generation face coverings. It’s also the environment. With scientists, engineers and product developers embarking on a mission to make better face coverings, new, more sustainable materials are almost certainly on the horizon.
With increased flexibility, better design and enhanced materials, masks that feel burdensome today will likely feel much better tomorrow. When that happens, face coverings will become an attractive and advantageous addition to the American wardrobe — and more importantly, to the American medicine cabinet.