By Sam Yang
Introduction: How this all started
When COVID-19 started getting scary in China around Chinese New Year, Chinese people started scrambling for face masks. The government called for donations and I recall all the shelves here plus online stores suddenly running out of supplies as people ran out to buy masks to send to China. I had a good friend reach out to me asking if I can look for masks for him and all I could find was a few boxes of 200 count N95 masks going for $500. He said he needed it. I thought it was crazy times, but at that moment I never thought COVID-19 would cause such havoc on humanity just in just a few weeks.
On the flip side, just a couple weeks in, and China shut down, before the US even spoke anything about sheltering-in, news came out that the air pollution in China, a problem they had been battling for decades, has miraculously improved. I thought, well that’s one huge positive. A break for Mother Nature.
Then maybe a week after that, groups and organizations we’ve been working with in beach cleanups started finding a new trash being washed ashore. Face masks. This was in February, and the seed was planted in my heart to do something.
Then our rollercoaster ride began with confirmed cases popping up around the world, getting real serious real fast in Italy, and Americans starting to feel uneasy. Fast forward a few more weeks, we began our sheltering-in and life changed. We needed to not only practice safety by distance; we needed to keep ourselves sanitized. Something so simple as buying groceries became a challenging task.
Face masks still weren’t a thing here yet until news started showing the difference in the how water droplets travelled in air from a cough/sneeze with and without a face mask. Then more research started coming out, showing the difference in progression of COVID-19 spread in countries who are accustomed to wearing face masks for illness prevention (e.g. Taiwan) versus countries that didn’t (e.g. Italy). For the first time in the LA/OC, I started seeing non-Asians wearing face masks while going out.
The few weeks in March leading into April was challenging and scary. Some people worried, some people were down right scared, some people began sheltering in before the governments announced anything; some people were in denial, many were angry, and everyone had to find a way to deal with the problem and our emotions. For me it was keep our team safe, keep our team paid, and keep my family safe. In the back of my mind while trying to rearrange my life was face masks. As the world’s need for face masks grew exponentially overnight (and continue to grow), the problem to follow will be trash. I looked up statistics, and it was scary. If plastic straws were a problem for the planet, face masks will be an even bigger one.
Towards the end of March I began reaching out to PPE manufacturers in Taiwan, wanting to learn about what makes a mask effective against pathogens, and how the different “levels” of masks was tested and graded. How much less effective is a cloth mask, versus something like a KN95.
The Research: What makes a good cloth mask?
While a bit more technical than my explanation here, the short answer is that cloth masks can be as effective as disposable one-time use medical grade masks.
Essentially what blocks pathogens in masks is waterproofing. It’s the water-repelling or waterproofing treatment on the face layer of the masks that blocks or filters out the pathogens. While a non-water proof cotton mask might work to keep dust and pollen away, it does nothing for bacteria and viruses. Next I learned that synthetic fibers are much more suitable for face masks because the yarns are more fine and the fabric that's woven is then more dense and naturally better at filtering/blocking things in the air. Furthermore, synthetic fibers are less prone to bacteria growth (if you ever feel your face mask has gotten a funky smell, it’s from the bacteria in your mouth that gets blown onto the masks from breathing out, and is growing on your mask). The other main factor for effectiveness is a good seal around the face.
What makes medical grade masks “medical grade” by definition. Since medical grade masks are made for use in hospitals, once used it’s considered bio-hazardous materials so they are one time use only. Therefore, reusable masks can’t be graded for medical. Also, medical grade masks are sterilized meaning the factory needs to have a “clean facility” with a “clean room” where the finish product is sterilized and kept in the clean room for over 2 weeks before it can be sealed for shipping. With the right fabric to block pathogens and right construction for air seal, a cloth face mask can be as effective against pathogens as a medical grade mask, but by definition it can’t be called medical grade.
This is great news. What a coincidence that the properties that make a good face mask is essentially the same properties that make a good boardshort or surf tee. Who knew: water-repelling synthetic fabrics. It’s right up our avenue. We can make a proper cloth face mask to keep people safe, reduce trash, and leave more PPE for medical workers.
Our Mask: Vast FM
The fabric I chose for our first mask is a 80% polyamide 13% polyester 7% elastane blend, made by Swiss technical textile company, Scholler. The water repellant treatment is applied the to the raw yarn before the fabric is spun (versus applying a coating to the finished fabric’s face), which increases the water repelling property and makes the treatment last much longer. My sister and brother-in-law’s brand, Multee-Project, uses this fabric for their pants and jacket and they have an extra roll of fabric in their warehouse so I asked them to let me use it in order to speed up our manufacturing process. While I still want to find or make an even better option, this is effective and already much better than what I’ve seen in the marketplace.
Our construction is a one-piece, non-pleated construction, with ties behind the head versus the more common ear loops. One-piece means less stitching, so less points of entry for pathogens. Non-pleating to reduce fabric waste but more importantly for easier cleaning. We went with behind the head ties for 2 big reasons. While ear loops are more convenient, over time ear loops cause skin discomfort/irritation and even damage (our frontline medical workers have open sores in the back of their ears from wearing facemarks while battling COVID-19). In addition to comfort, behind the head ties also allow for more adjustability, meaning the best face seal for maximum effectiveness. Surgical masks tie behind the head for this reason: to create the best seal possible.
We are using our VAST Aquaterra surf tee fabric for the inner lining. The moisture wicking, anti-bacterial, anti-rashing, and non-clinging properties are a perfect fit.
It’s been an interesting journey learning how to make a face mask, and I’m very excited we will have them ready for people in less than 2 weeks time. The main body color for this first version will be khaki, with contrasting binding colors/prints options. I’m confident to say this is better than the majority of the face masks currently found in the marketplace. Better for people, better for the environment, better for the cause. 1500 pieces will be made initially.
This has been a joint effort and would not be possible without the help of the knowledge from PPE manufacturers lending time to teach me while they are overwhelmed with producing PPE for the world, our team working in isolation but with hearts connected for the cause, Multee-Project for giving us their fabric when they are also using it for their own face masks, the factory dropping other productions to squeeze us in, friends and family already spreading the news and waiting to purchase giving me confidence, and my daughter who entertains herself while dad tries to get some work done. I’m feeling blessed.
For the next version, I will be working to develop a fabric that breathes easier, and repels water just as well (or better). I’ve found a PPE manufacturer who has a water repelling treatment that’s already tested against H1N1 and will see if this is an option we can apply to the new fabric. We’ll introduce more colors and may have a 2nd style to incorporate 1- way exhaust valves for better ventilation.
Lastly, a fun fact. The look for our face mask was inspired by Tom Cruise in Top Gun.