Masks: The New Reality and Fashion’s Latest Accessory

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By Roxy L. Rowton

The new reality necessitates people to wear a mask to prevent spreading the COVID -19 virus in public settings, especially in those settings where social distancing is not possible. It can be overwhelming to figure out which is the best mask to purchase for protection while self-affirming personal style.

The CDC recommends the general public wear a mask in public settings. The mask acts as a filter to capture the small droplets and airborne particles transmitted from the mouth and nose when talking, laughing, sneezing or coughing.  Potential benefits of a facial mask can vary significantly depending on the fabrication, the number of layers, fit and the cleaning methods. While there are more substantive studies on facial masks for protection from colds and flu than COVID-19, non-medical or cloth masks will generally not function as well as surgical masks and N95 respirators to protect the wearer from COVID-19.

That is not to say that an individual should not wear a cloth mask. Imperfect as the evidence may be, it does note that wearing a mask with a proper fit and good materials could be comparable to a surgical mask.

The Shortcomings of Cloth Masks

Masks must ensure protection, as well as breathability, to avoid causing more harm than good.  The more an individual labors to breathe, the greater the risk of side leakage. Masks may give a false sense of security, causing the wearers to not pay proper attention to physical distancing. There is also a risk that wearers will touch their faces more because they may feel the need to readjust their masks. If the wearer’s hands are contaminated, the wearers can transfer the virus to their mouths, noses, or eyes. (Conversely, a mask could also serve as a reminder not to touch the face.)

Which Materials Make for Better Mask Protection

When selecting a facial mask, the wearer has many choices. The CDC recommends wearing a mask with two or more layers of washable and breathable fabric: an inner layer of soft absorbent fabric such as cotton and an outer layer that acts as a filter or barrier, made of a non-woven textile such as polypropylene.  Cloth masks should fit closely over the nose, cheeks, and chin.  When the edges of the mask are not close to the face, unfiltered air can seep in and out.

Recent research from the University of Illinois showed that a mask fabricated from 100% silk was more effective at filtering small droplets, because silk has electrostatic properties that aids in trapping small particles.  A mask made from two layers of cotton and one layer of a synthetic material have proven to be one of the most effective options.  Polypropylene is one of the most popular materials for masks because viruses and bacteria can’t live on the fabric for an extended period.  The downside is that a polypropylene mask suffers a loss of its electrostatic charge when washed.  Polyester masks were less likely to perform well in the filtering of small droplets.  Bandanas, scarfs, and gaiters performed poorly at effectively filtering small droplets.  The Journal of Hospital Infection found that a scarf only reduced a person’s infection rate by 44 percent after they shared a room with an infected person for 30 seconds.  After 20 minutes of exposure, the scarf only reduced the infection risk by 24 percent.

For eyeglass wearers the use of a cloth mask may cause fogging.  When breathing with a mask that does not have a tight seal or fit around the nose area or mouth, warm air can build up inside the mask and escape through the top, coating the lens of eyeglasses with condensation. Choosing masks with adjustable ear loops, a nose guard, or a wire that contours to the bridge of the nose can decrease the fogging of eyeglass lenses.

Reusing and Disinfecting Masks

Extended use is generally healthier than reuse.  Reusing a mask requires touching it and, potentially, the face.  For any mask, whether cloth or medical, the longer it is worn or the more often it is reused, the less effective the mask becomes. Cloth masks can be washed and reused. The CDC  and the WHO recommend discarding a disposable mask as soon as it becomes damp. If a disposable mask must be reused, it should be stored where it may breathe and dry out for at least three days between uses.

How to wash cloth masks: The WHO recommends washing with detergent and water, then drying it on high.  Some studies report the efficacy of cloth masks is reduced after several washing and drying cycles — as much as 20% after the fourth washing cycle. The pores within the cloth can change in size and shape, and ear loops can get stretched out, compromising the fit.  The use of bleach and chlorine based-solutions during washing can interrupt the static charge that supports filtering small particles.  Furthermore, bleach vapors can remain after washing that can cause skin and respiratory irritations.


Wearing face masks to help curb the COVID-19 spread means wearing some type of facial mask for several hours out of the day. This extended period of wearing masks has produced in some the newly termed skin condition “maskne.” Maskne is a type of breakout caused from wearing a face mask. Maskne forms in areas covered by a mask and is caused by friction, pressure or rubbing.

Individuals more likely to experience face-mask-related irritations are those with existing skin conditions such as rosacea, acne, atopic dermatitis, sensitivity to humid or dry air and allergies.  Dermatologists recommend the wearing of cloth masks with a soft, smooth texture to reduce the friction that can chafe and irritate the skin.

Secretions from the mouth, nose and skin can get on a facial mask wherever it touches the face.  Selecting a cloth mask in a natural fiber and washing the mask with a gentle, nonirritating laundry product after each use can help prevent skin irritation or sensitivity.  Store the laundered masks in a bag to keep them clean.

While a cloth mask may not be regarded as a fashion accessory, it is likely that masks will become the newest fashion item, along with serving as a functional facial covering for the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. The selection of a cloth mask can be as much a consideration as the clothes an individual chooses to wear. So it should come to no surprise that fashionistas and pragmatists are desiring aesthetically pleasing masks to express individuality and style while helping to slow the spread of the virus.

Roxy L. Rowton has spent three decades assisting women transform their wardrobe from a random assortment of garments into a curated collection of functionality and individuality.  She shares her expertise on the Fashion Files at Prince William Living and “build a better wardrobe” blog at


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