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three people in air filtering masks
Air filtering masks are already popular across Asia, but will they become common in the US?
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

As air pollution gets worse, a dystopian accessory is born

The air is getting more dangerous to breathe all over the world — and a suite of companies are hoping to capitalize with a new fashion item.

Last fall, two different wildfires destroyed huge swaths of California. The Camp Fire in Northern California covered 153,336 acres, destroyed nearly 20,000 structures, and killed 85 people; it also left a shroud of smoke and ash hovering over the area. Public schools in five Bay Area counties were closed, and residents were warned to stay inside and protect their lungs from the dangerous air quality. Stores for miles around sold out of everything from surgical masks to the recommended N95 painter’s masks — the only kind that can effectively filter 95 percent of the tiny particles that do the most damage to your lungs.

Walking around the Bay Area in the weeks following the Camp Fire felt like living in a dystopian future — the sky a matte grey, the sun a red, alien-like orb, the streets empty save a handful of souls, nearly all wearing painter’s masks or bandannas or scarves over their mouths. Those two weeks might have been not just a dark blip, but rather a glimpse into our collective future. And there are entrepreneurs poised to capitalize on it. Because in the tomorrow that the Camp Fire portends, we’re all going to need a good face mask.

A woman in a printed blue Vogmask.
A woman in a printed blue Vogmask.

The global future of air quality doesn’t look so good. As humanity continues to make little progress fighting climate change, fires are expected to get more frequent. And in some cases, like in California, that new pollution is erasing decades of improving air quality.

The American Lung Association estimates that 133.9 million people in the United States are exposed to unhealthy air conditions every year. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million people die every year from exposure to air pollution. A recent report from IQAir, a group that surveys air pollution worldwide, highlighted the cities with the worst pollution, many of which were located in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Most of this air pollution comes from industry and other emissions.

And then there’s the dust. All around the world, deserts are expanding. “The desert is creeping and nobody is noticing,” says Sumant Nigam, who recently published a study that found that the Sahara has expanded by 10 percent over the past century, largely due to climate change. “And eventually, it will swallow you.”

The Sahara isn’t the only desert that’s been creeping. The Gobi Desert in China has been expanding by almost 10 miles every year. The Kalahari Desert in southern Africa is growing, as is the Maowusu Desert in China, and the Great Sandy Desert in Australia. The southwestern US is seeing drier conditions and a creeping desert landscape. And climate models suggest that at our current rate of climate change, deserts could expand by 34 percent globally. That’s 5.2 million square miles.

With increased desertification comes an increased risk of dust-borne diseases. Dust storms have been linked to outbreaks of valley fever, whooping cough, Kawasaki disease, and meningitis.

But what is the average person supposed to do when the air around them is no longer safe to breathe? “It’s just impractical to tell people: ‘Don’t go outside. Don’t breathe,’” says Morgan Gorris, a PhD candidate at UC Irvine who researches valley fever and dust storms.

Enter the face mask, an accessory ripe for the market in these dystopian times. People who live in desert areas have long known to cover their mouths and protect their lungs from dust. But in the past few years, a handful of companies have started making air filtration masks engineered specifically for both fashion and function. In California, a company called Vogmask has all but cornered the market with its brightly colored designs. And abroad, companies like Airpop and Respro are entering the fold, hoping to provide an attractive alternative to the standard white painter’s mask. But how does a new accessory category take off — especially one that covers a good portion of a wearer’s face?

Some parts of the world already have a huge head start here. People in Korea, Japan, and parts of China regularly wear what are often called “courtesy masks” — surgical masks worn to prevent their germs from infecting others. “It’s considered a polite thing to wear if you’re sick,” says Christina Xu, a researcher who studies cultural trends in the US and China. Xu points out that the density of the urban environments in these countries likely contributes to the masks’ popularity. “You’re protecting yourself from this hyper-dense, hyper-concentrated urban environment, and frankly, there are just way more of those places in China and Japan and Korea, and in Asia in general, than there are in the US, where we tend to be a little bit more spread out except for on the coasts.”

In these Asian countries, courtesy masks are common enough that pop stars even influence the styles — when bands started wearing black masks instead of the usual white ones, the trend spread to the masses. But these masks do nothing to filter out particulate matter like dust or pollution, and the PM2.5 masks that do that kind of filtering still aren’t nearly as popular.

Airpop, a Chinese company that makes face masks, is trying to change that. Founded by Chris Hosmer, the company set out not only to make a high-quality mask but to fix a design problem they identified with the masks already on the market. “They made a mask that actually fits on East Asian faces, because the other masks are designed for Caucasian faces and often don’t actually seal properly,” says Xu. Hosmer explains that most mask-making companies in China simply import all their parameters from the United States, using headforms based on Western faces.

And a poor fit in this case isn’t just annoying — if a protective air mask doesn’t fit just right, it’s almost counterproductive. Due to physics, any gap in the seal acts like a straw, sucking the harmful particles directly into your mouth.

To fix this, Hosmer and his team partnered with a researcher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that was already doing a big facial biometrics scanning project, and used that data to create a mask that actually fit the average East Asian face. In China, the masks are approved by the China Occupational Safety & Health Association all the way down to PM0.3, almost 10 times smaller than the standard PM2.5 masks. But when Airpop sent the mask to the United States for third-party testing, the team saw strange results. What they finally realized was that for the “fit” part of the test, where real people wear the mask and perform various tasks, American labs were using almost exclusively Caucasians. Eventually, they decided to simply forgo American certifications and focus on the Chinese market.

Today, Airpop masks are sold all over China as well as online for $50. They come in a variety of colors and look more like a fancy Nike shoe than a surgeon’s protective covering. And Airpop is not alone. A company called Freka sells stylish masks for more than $100 apiece. Lifestyle bloggers in places like China and India even review masks as fashion items.

Shilpa Gandotra, an Indian woman who writes a blog called Our External World, told me she still wears the Vogmask she reviewed in 2016. “Diwali time in India is the height of pollution, so that is one time frame where the mask is essential,” she told me. “I literally carry this mask in my purse so that whenever I need it, I can wear it and save myself from bad-quality air.” But in the United States, there might be more of a hurdle to get people to wear masks in the first place.

During the Camp Fire, Vogmask, a local Northern California company (which sells its masks for $33 to $44 each), found itself inundated with orders — co-founder Wendover Brown told me that their sales increased to 10 times their normal level. But Vogmask has been selling its colorful air filtration masks since 2011, after one fateful day at Burning Man. “When we first conjured the idea, we were wearing bandanas to protect ourselves from the dust,” says Marc Brown, Wendover’s son and co-founder. “And other people were wearing white painter’s masks, and it occurred to me to make real dust masks that looked as nice as bandanas.”

A young girl in a surgical face mask with a glitch pattern
A young girl in a Vogmask with a glitch-inspired pattern.

In those early days, Vogmask had little competition from American manufacturers. “We were able to try whatever we wanted for a while. People bought whatever we made,” Marc says. He experimented with putting glitch-inspired images on the masks, along with artwork like Mondrian and the work of Dada artists. “It didn’t matter what we did because we sold out of everything anyway.”

But they soon learned that people didn’t necessarily want bold, bright, and eye-catching designs. And Marc refined a set of design rules that work for the company: no faces (“it just looks really creepy and it turns it into a Halloween thing”), no polka dots (“it makes someone look like they have a disease or outbreak on their face”), and nothing scary (“our ethos is trying to make people happy”).

Today, Wendover says the company’s best-selling masks are still the less flashy ones — a mask called Hero, made up of a series of black and gray triangles, consistently outperforms all the rest. “It’s less threatening than a solid black mass and yet is super professional-looking.” She also told me they can see some cultural trends in what sells best where. “In China, we had a lot of success with animal patterns, the blue and pink panda designs. In the US, that doesn’t sell well at all.”

These masks are still niche in the United States. Right now, Vogmask is working to update its packaging, to signal that its products are something permanent and more luxurious. “We’re going to make a more high-quality box,” says Marc, “and we’re going to improve the materials of the product itself so that it feels like a more expensive item that you invest in.” They hope that with a good enough design, they can convince even American customers these masks are worth the money.

And there’s an accessory these brands can look to as a historical example. “If sunglasses didn’t exist today and you were going to pitch an investor on sunglasses, you would sound insane,” Hosmer says. “‘Hey, we’re gonna put this thing that covers, like, the window to your soul, the most communicative part of your body; we’re gonna put something in front of it so that you can’t see it, and that thing is gonna essentially be able to protect you from your environment.’ They would be like, ‘What? That’s stupid. No one’s gonna do that!’” Masks are no different, he says.

Xu also pointed to sunglasses when I asked her about the issues Americans might have with covering up their faces. “I’m not actually someone who likes to wear sunglasses,” she said. “And I’m struck by how common it is for people to cover up one of the more expressive parts of their face all the time.” How different are masks, really?

Taking sunglasses as precedent could also reveal how the adoption of masks might play out. “Designer sunglasses went from being something that was very luxury menswear to luxury womenswear,” Xu says. Eventually, sunglasses branched out into all kinds of forms: sleek, bedazzled, futuristic, bright, athletic. “All of those are still sunglasses and still fashionable, just in very different ways of expressing who the wearer is.” And, like sunglasses, some masks will be cheap and not really work to protect you, while others will be expensive, luxurious items that you keep for years.

The near-future of this accessory could depend on who picks up the object first. Xu says she could see it going a few ways: It could be adopted by streetwear fans (Supreme already sells a face mask, although it doesn’t seem to actually do much in the way of safety or filtration) or by users who prefer the Burning Man aesthetic. Or perhaps the wellness world adopts these masks, in which case the product design would look quite different. “The other direction might be the sort of Lululemon-ification of the masks, if they’re treated as these essential wellness objects and they enter the world of performance fabrics and athleisure and athletic wear,” Xu says. Think Goop or Fabletics, but for face masks.

It’s possible that the biggest challenge facing face masks isn’t the fashion at all, but rather convincing people they’re necessary. In some countries, air pollution is a hot-button political issue as well as a health problem. China, for example, spent years denying it had an air pollution problem at all, attempting to convince its citizens to disbelieve their eyes and lungs. Despite a decade of visible air pollution in cities like Beijing, China only declared an air quality “Red Alert,” signaling that the air quality was particularly hazardous for more than three days in a row, for the first time in 2015.

In India, the country with the world’s most polluted air, even doctors have told people not to wear masks despite the poor air quality. “Dr Manoj Kumar Goel, Director of Pulmonary and Critical Care Department at Fortis Healthcare, Gurgaon, tells us that it’s not time to start wearing a face mask yet,” says India Express. (There’s also the very real fact that many people in India cannot afford a $40, or even $5, face mask.)

Hosmer thinks the longer-term future of air masks is higher-tech that today’s filtration devices. “It’s definitely a little Black Mirror-ish and ‘the apocalypse is nigh’-ish, but sensors are getting cheap enough and high enough fidelity that imagining products that read and report environmental health in real time is not crazy anymore,” he says. In the future, these masks may be outfitted with tiny sensors that detect everything from hazardous chemicals to the electric fields nearby. And with all that additional data, Hosmer thinks people will better understand the kinds of risks our environment might pose. “So there will gradually be a familiarity with, if not an acceptance of, knowing what the invisible threats to your and your family’s health and well-being are.”

In the future, we’ll know a lot more about what we’re breathing. That fact alone might usher in the era of the mask.

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