Over the past few years, we’ve seen masks go from being a relatively niche item to becoming mandated in much of the world to a protective measure only used in high-risk situations. However, in a world that continues to evolve rapidly, the importance of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, being accessible to every age, race and face size has remained a consistent factor.
While mask-wearing has seen a decline since the peak of the pandemic, more people than ever recognise the need to continue masking. Whether it’s because they have an immuno-compromised relative, are aware of the dangers of ever-increasing wildfire smoke, or just want to mask to avoid sicknesses such as the flu, masking remains vital for many of us.
But despite being essential for many, masks have a problem.
Anyone who has worn a mask or respirator before knows they have issues. They often leave a lot to be desired when it comes to fit, but especially when it comes to comfort. No one wants to mask, and we only do so out of necessity because issues such as 'mask face', muffled voices, and significantly reduced breathability are so prevalent.
This needs to change, though, as masks have transformed significantly from symbols of the global health crisis to becoming vital tools in our daily health and wellness regimen. Amid these shifting dynamics, one constant is the need for high-quality, comfortable, and high-performance masks. At AirPop, we've identified these issues preventing masking uptake and we've designed our masks to fill this gap.
In this article, we want to take a look at those who continue to wear a mask and the ever-increasing reasons to continue masking. From there, we want to identify the biggest issues with masks and respirators today and discuss the need for a community-focused, inclusive, and high-performance mask. A niche that AirPop Masks fill commendably.
Who is wearing a mask today?
Even as we transition towards a post-pandemic emergency world, a significant portion of the population continues to embrace mask-wearing. To address the issues with current masks and respirators, we first need to look at the people to continue to mask. How are they, when do they mask, and why? It's only when we answer these questions that we can address the biggest flaws with current respiratory protection.
At AirPop, we have found that many of our customers continue to mask due to COVID-19 and seasonal illnesses such as the flu. With more health impacts of long-term COVID-19 being discovered, many choose to continue masking due to the potentially severe health issues caused by the illness. Other community members are choosing to stock up on masks due to the worsening environmental crisis leading to increasingly common wildfires and toxic smoke.
There are also a multitude of other reasons our community and others continue to mask. Whether it’s for protection against seasonal allergens, to keep an immuno-compromised family member safe, or otherwise, masks have become essential in our toolkit for safeguarding our health.
When are masks being worn?
While analysing the data and behaviours around mask usage, it's important to recognise certain seasonal and situational trends that play a significant role. One of these is the propensity for mask usage to increase during the winter months, which coincides with the traditional respiratory infection season.
It's during these colder months that many individuals opt for additional protective measures, such as mask-wearing, to shield themselves from the heightened risk of respiratory infections such as the flu, COVID-19, and RSV.
This fact has been highlighted this winter as the CDC has begun to again recommend masking in healthcare settings. Furthermore, we've seen masking mandates reintroduced in some states for certain settings. Due to the seasonal nature of both COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, it's likely we will continue to see this trend in future winters.
On top of this, we've begun to see some concerning trends in the wastewater data which are shown above. A of the end of December 2023, we are heading into a new surge which is currently the second biggest COVID waste water surge during the whole pandemic. Case rates are also climbing at alarming rates, showing that the pandemic is far from over and masking continues to remain essential.
Moreover, mask usage also surges in specific situations, such as crowded indoor locations with poor ventilation. These environments, where the risk of airborne transmission of respiratory illnesses is higher, make masks an essential protective measure.
This persistent trend of mask usage both now and into the future, particularly among those who are conscious about respiratory health and those who travel frequently, shows that while masking rates may have dropped, they remain as essential as ever.
These usage situations also highlight the need for comfortable yet protect masks. For the most part, current masks sit in one of two categories - they're either comfortable and breathable or protective, not both. Since users may need to wear a mask for hours on end, and it shouldn't interfere with their daily life, a mask that merges comfort and protection is becoming increasingly needed.
The continued need for better masks.
With wildfires increasing, preparation is vital.
During the summer of 2023, we also saw a large uptake in masking due to the Canadian wildfires. While wildfires during the summer months have been common for many years, the severity of the toxic smoke from the 2023 wildfires drew attention to the ongoing need for high-quality respiratory protection.
Wildfire smoke in particular is incredibly dangerous because it's essentially a cocktail of toxic particles and gasses. With wildfire smoke being able to spread as far as 3000km from its source, it's vital that high-quality respiratory protection is available to everyone. No one is safe from wildfire smoke, and this is one of the core reasons that we believe masks need to be inclusive and accessible.
Unfortunately, the reality is that wildfires are here to stay and they will only worsen over the coming years due to climate change. A recent Washington post article interviewed climate scientists and asked what trends were are likely to see in 2024 and this quote in particular stood out:
Human-caused climate change has indeed dominated global trends: The last eight years have been the eight hottest on record. A sure-to-be-record-hot 2023 and a potentially even hotter 2024 would stretch that streak to a decade. Washington Post.
The severity of climate change over the past decade indicates that not only will we continue to be impacted by wildfire smoke, but that it's likely to worsen in many areas. While this is a concerning trend and something that we need to work towards improving, in the meantime masks are the most important tools in our toolkit for safeguarding our respiratory health.
Worsening urban air quality
While we focus a lot on masking in the context of respiratory illnesses and wildfire smoke, there is also a continued need for high-quality masks for those in urban areas. While some cities are seeing improved air quality through government initiatives, this is outside the norm and many more cities are seeing gradually declining air quality.
Commuters are some of the most impacted by poor urban air quality as using buses and trains often exposes us to toxic particles that can quickly be detrimental to our health. However, while commuters are some of the most impacted, we all feel the health consequences of poor urban air quality as it's the air that most of us breathe every day.
With air pollution becoming so prevalent, the need for masks is stronger than ever. Since many of us are exposed to this poor quality air for hours on end, and even when inside, it again highlights the need for masks that aren't only protective, but also comfortable and breathable.
We all need better masks.
That leads us to what all of our findings have culminated in. We need better masks.
Despite masks being such important protective equipment, innovation in the industry has been stifled, and we see very few improvements in masking. This is a big issue because masks and respirators are in a bad state. They’re uncomfortable, often unwieldy, and clearly aren’t designed for everyone. Simply put, they’re not inclusive. This has highlighted the need for better masks because everybody has a right to protect their health.
Perhaps most importantly, the only way to remove the barriers to masking is to create better masks. As it stands, many people have bad memories of wearing masks during the pandemic. Whether because they were wearing a restrictive N95, a barely breathable FFP2, or an ill-fitting surgical mask, many people have been left with terrible memories of masking. In order to encourage more people to wear masks, we need to have a mask that leaves not even a pleasant experience, but that isn't unpleasant. In other words, we need masks that the user can forget they're wearing but that protects them.
At AirPop we've taken this belief to heart, and we have created a range of masks that are comfortable due to their exceptional breathability and comfortable earloops. However, While comfort was a key focus for us, we knew that protection couldn't be sacrificed and therefore we put an equal emphasis on incorporating a high-quality filter that can filter > 97% of particles while providing an exceptional fit.
Fit is difficult, because without multiple sizes, it's challenging to create a mask that fits a wide range of people. Since we believe that masks need to be inclusive, our mask portfolio spans from children's masks to adult variants designed for different face shapes. This inclusive approach ensures that everyone from all age groups has a mask that fits them well. Because everyone deserves to breathe clean air.
To achieve this, during our design process, we scanned the faces of over 4000 people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. With this information, we created a range of truly inclusive masks. Gone are the days when high-quality respirators were reserved for industrial and healthcare workers. Now, well-fitting masks are available for everyone.
Another issue we identified is both the cost and environmental impact of disposable masks and respirators. We need masks that cut down on waste and cost. During the height of the pandemic, facemasks accounted for as much as 10% of global plastic waste. This waste caused unprecedented damage to our oceans and the wildlife that calls them home. A better mask needs to be reusable and washable for many uses.
For this reason, all AirPop Everyday masks have a 40-hour lifespan and they can be washed up to 10 times without the filter degrading. While many masks claim to be reusable and washable, few truly are. AirPop masks don't fall into this category, and, instead, have been lab tested to prove they continue to perform after being washed multiple times. Not only does this provide peace of mind, but it keeps your wallet happy and significantly reduces the amount of waste reaching our oceans.
Let’s take a deeper look at the current issues that plague masks and respirators and how AirPop addresses these issues to make a better mask.
Filtering what truly matters, that's better.
A masks primary purpose is to filter harmful fine and ultrafine particles. For a mask to be effective, it needs to effectively filter these tiny particles with high-quality filter media. However, there are some common misunderstandings with how filters and masks work. For filtration experts, it's long been established that the most challenging particle size for a mask or respirator to filter is 0.3 microns. Here's why:
Elusive Size: These particles, invisible to the human eye, move very unpredictably. The best gauge of a mask's overall filtration capability is its efficiency at filtering this specific size.
Benchmark for Standards: NIOSH, in its 42 CFR Part 84 guidelines for respirator filter approval, emphasises testing with 0.3-micron particles as this size represents the “worst case” occupational airborne hazard.
Health: Particles between 0.3 to 0.9 microns are of high concern. They're small enough to bypass our natural respiratory defences yet large enough that they're not easily exhaled.
At AirPop, we focus on what matters most in filtration.
AirPop face masks have earned certifications from two premier PPE labs in North America, employing rigorous industry-standard tests and achieving > 97% filtration efficacy with 0.3-micron particle size.
Our masks surpass the popular KN95 international filtering facepiece respirator criteria and meet and exceed the rigorous standards set by the lesser-known ASTM F3502-21 barrier face covering protocol. Despite being a barrier face covering standard (as opposed to a respirator standard), we believe that our ASTM F3502-21 certification is as important as our KN95 certification because it shows that while filtering > 97% of particles, our masks remain highly breathable. When it comes to the mask you choose to wear everyday, it needs to be capable of filtering ultrafine particles while also remaining comfortable and wearable.
In 2021 The AirPop Light SE was also selected by the University of Minnesota as the reusable high-performance mask option for their campus mask safety program. In a study of mask filtration performance published in January 2023 by a renowned team of scientists and engineers from the University, their findings showed that the AirPop Light SE ranked just behind the 3M 9010 N95 in filtration efficacy.
A better fit for faces of all ages and sizes.
For any mask or respirator to provide optimal protection, it must fit snugly on the face, forcing air through the mask, not around it. An improper fit can significantly compromise the mask's efficacy, leaving the wearer unprotected
In the 1970s, NIOSH created an anthropometric dataset representing the facial dimensions of US workers. This ensures NIOSH-approved respirators cater to a wide variety of face sizes and shapes in the workforce. However, this approach leaves a gap: high-performance masks suited for children, the elderly, and demographic changes not covered by the original panel remain limited.
In our design process, we drew from the facial dimensions of 4,000 individuals spanning diverse ethnicities and age groups. This data informed our ergonomic designs, tailored to accommodate a wider array of face shapes and sizes. Leveraging industry-standard quantitative fit testing measures, we achieved a fit factor above 100 and also outperformed the KN95 standard requirements, with an inward leakage of less than 8%.
This was possible due to the innovative testing and designs we've used in AirPop masks. The Light SE, in particular, excels in fit due to its silicone seal which can flip out to prevent air from escaping through gaps in the top of the mask. This addition also makes it the perfect mask for anyone who wears glasses and suffers from fogging glasses with other masks and respirators.
We also managed to achieve this fantastic fit factor while utilising ear loops on our masks. While masks and respirators with headbands tend to provide a better fit, we wanted to keep our masks accessible and convenient and therefore opted for ear loops instead. Despite this fact, we passed the KN95 fit and leakage requirements.
Breathing easier, that’s also better.
To work, a mask or respirator must filter harmful particles while letting you breathe comfortably.
Breathability is how easily you can breathe through a respirator. It's measured by the difference in air pressure on both sides of the material as air flows through it at a rate similar to how you breathe.
There are several standards that define how to measure differential pressure in Pascals (Pa), with NIOSH setting the maximum limits for inhalation resistance at 343 Pa when validating N95 filters. All AirPop masks are manufactured from our proprietary 4-layers of non-woven materials that, in independent laboratory tests, achieved < 87 Pa inhalation resistance, or about 1/3 of the N95 maximum.
Not only does this improve comfort, but it also ensures a better fit as air passes easily through the mask, rather than trying to bypass the mask which can create gaps in the seal. AirPop masks are so breathable that they won't interfere with your day-to-day life like other masks and respirators do. Whether you are looking for a mask to exercise in, or want a mask to wear to school or work, AirPop's range of highly-breathable masks are the perfect choice.
Better comfort and wearability.
Mask fatigue is a challenge many face with prolonged mask-wearing. The added effort to breathe can cause discomfort and a feeling of breathlessness. Additionally, poorly designed masks often muffle speech, requiring people to speak louder or repeat themselves.
This mix of physical strain and communication barriers has increased public frustration and dislike for all kinds of masks.
AirPop masks are ingeniously crafted to "pop" into a 3D shape, forming a canopy that circulates cooler air around your face as you breathe naturally. This design prevents the mask from collapsing onto your lips, reducing irritation that can cause acne. We go beyond just personal comfort, AirPop's lightweight construction also ensures that your speech remains clear and audible.
Better sustainability through enhanced reusability.
One of the major factors setting AirPop masks apart from typical non-woven mask brands is their designed reusability. Not only does this feature offer economic value to the user, but it also signifies our commitment to environmental sustainability.
Single-use, disposable masks have significantly contributed to plastic waste during the pandemic, with countless masks discarded daily, ending up in landfills and oceans.
AirPop masks are designed (and tested) to be washed and reused to combat this environmental issue. The durability of our product ensures that even after repeated uses, the mask retains its integrity and continues to offer superior filtration, fit and breathability.
Our research suggests that by choosing to reuse AirPop masks at least ten times, we can greatly reduce the number of plastic masks discarded. In fact, if every mask user switched to reusable options like AirPop, the positive environmental impact could be immense.
Masking for the future
As the narrative around masks expands to encompass seasonal respiratory disease prevention, environmental protection, and user comfort and trust, we have identified the need for better masks. Masks that provide a high level of filtration are comfortable enough to be worn daily and don’t break the bank or damage the environment. Above all, masks that are inclusive because everyone has the right to breathe clean air.
Unfortunately, with prevalent respiratory diseases and ever-worsening wildfires due to climate change, we believe that masks are here to stay. For this reason, we at AirPop believe better masks are needed urgently. Masks are no longer needed only by healthcare and industrial professionals - everyone needs them.
In providing masks that users trust, we aim to empower our users to choose cleaner air and to safeguard themselves and our communities against every health challenge.