Can innovation solve efficacy and sustainability issues as mask-wearing becomes the norm?
Boston, Mass. – Face masks, previously used primarily as a tool for medical and industrial professionals, have become a necessary global consumer product because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In its newest report, “Mask Up: The Rising Need for Material Innovations in Face Masks,” Lux Research outlines the materials innovations needed to help increase production, make masks suitable for a consumer population, and improve sustainability.
As the coronavirus is spread largely through droplets and aerosols from the breaths, coughs, and sneezes of infected individuals, masks are a crucial tool for decreasing the spread of the disease. “While N95 masks are most effective in controlling the spread for medical and essential workers, other options for the general population can better suit their needs and address the risk of shortages,” says lead report author and Research Associate Drishti Masand.
Disposable masks are generally made from a nonwoven polypropylene or polyethylene fabric and, while often effective, generate significant waste. Reusable masks are popular due to their convenience and can be helpful when disposable masks are in short supply, but they are often less effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19. There is a great need for materials advancements to make masks more effective against the virus and also to improve their aesthetic, feel, and usability.
3D printing solutions offer an alternative and repeatable manufacturing method but are slow and expensive, making scaling difficult. Some mask manufacturers are exploring new reusable materials, such as silicone, but coatings, specifically antimicrobial and antiviral, remain the fastest-growing area of material innovations for masks. Some companies are also exploring coatings that decrease the permeability of materials at low cost.
There’s also a need for better solutions to mask waste, as shown by images of used masks polluting cities, waterways, and other natural environments. While reusable masks are not an option for healthcare and medical workers, they are a suitable option for consumer use. Disposable masks are technically recyclable, but most recyclers won’t accept them due to safety concerns, making novel sterilization solutions attractive but difficult to implement. Lux Research predicts that there will be expedited innovation of new materials to use for disposable masks that have a suitable end of life. This could include growing use of reusable materials or other options that allow for easier recycling.
For more information, download the report Executive Summary.