Reworked mask is comfy enough to wear all day

A mannequin models the redesigned face mask. "The combination of fit, filtration efficiency, and staying in the right place make for a good mask," says Sundaresan Jayaraman. (Credit: Christopher Moore/Georgia Tech)

Researchers have designed a new reusable face mask that protects wearers and those around them from SARS-CoV-2, is comfortable enough to wear all day, and stays in place without frequent adjustment.

The modular mask combines a barrier filtration material with a stretchable fabric to hold it in place. The prototypes made for testing use hook and eye fasteners on the back of the head to keep the masks on, and include a pocket for an optional filter to increase protection. After 20 washings, the prototypes did not shrink or lost their shape.

“If we want to reopen the economy and ask people to go back to work, we need a mask that is both comfortable and effective,” says Sundaresan Jayaraman, professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech.

“We have taken a science-based approach to designing a better mask, and we are very passionate about getting this out so people can use it to help protect themselves and others from harm,” Jayaraman says.

A researcher holds the mask up to her face
Principal research scientist Sungmee Park shows how the redesigned face mask is worn. (Credit: Christopher Moore/Georgia Tech).

Principal research scientist Sungmee Park shows how the redesigned face mask is worn. (Credit: Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech).

The fundamental flaw in existing reusable cloth masks is that they—unlike N95 respirators, which are fitted for individual users—leak air around the edges, bypassing their filtration mechanism. That potentially allows virus particles, both large droplets and smaller aerosols, to enter the air wearers breathe in, and allows particles from infected persons to exit the mask.

The leakage problem shows up in complaints about eyeglasses fogging up as exhaled breath leaks around the nose, making people less likely to wear them. The fit problem can also be seen in constant adjustments wearers make, which could potentially lead to contamination whenever they touch the masks after touching other surfaces.

To address the leakage challenge, Jayaraman and principal research scientist Sungmee Park created a two-part mask that fastens behind the head like many N95 respirators. The front part—the barrier component—contains the filtration material and is contoured to fit tightly while allowing space ahead of the nose and mouth to avoid breathing restrictions and permit unrestricted speech.

Made from the kind of moisture-wicking material used in athletic clothing, the mask it includes a pocket into which a filter can be inserted to increase the filtration efficiency and thereby increase protection. The washable fabric filter is made of a blend of Spandex and polyester.

Breathing with a face mask

The second part of the mask is fashioned from stretchable material. The stretchable part, which has holes for the ears to help position the mask, holds the front portion in place and fastens with conventional hook and eyelet hardware, a mechanism that has been used in clothing for centuries.

“We want people to be able to get the mask in the right place every time,” Jayaraman says. “If you don’t position it correctly and easily, you are going to have to keep fiddling with it. We see that all the time on television with people adjusting their masks and letting them drop below their noses.”

A sewing pattern with pins in it sit on top of the fabric for the mask
Patterns for the redesigned face mask are cut from different types of fabric based on the need for filtration or flexiblity. (Credit: Christopher Moore/Georgia Tech).

Beyond controlling air leakage, designing a better mask involves a tradeoff between filtration effectiveness and how well users can breathe. If a mask makes breathing too difficult, users will simply not use it, reducing compliance with masking requirements.

Many existing mask designs have additional layers in an attempt to increase filtration effectiveness, but that may not be as helpful as it might seem, Park says.

“We tested 16 layers of handkerchief material, and as we increased the layers, we measured increased breathing resistance,” she says. “While the breathing resistance went up, the filtration did not improve as much as we would have expected.”

“Good filtration efficiency is not enough by itself,” says Jayaraman. “The combination of fit, filtration efficiency, and staying in the right place make for a good mask.”

Masks have become ‘an essential accessory’

The stretchable part of the mask is made from knitted fabric—a Spandex/Lyocell blend—to allow for stretching around the head and under the chin. The researchers used a woven elastic band sewn with pleats to cover the top of the nose.

The researchers made their mask prototypes from synthetic materials instead of cotton. Though cotton is a natural material, it absorbs moisture and holds it on the face, reducing breathability, and potentially creating a “petri dish” for the growth of microbes.

“Masks have become an essential accessory in our wardrobe and add a social dimension to how we feel about wearing them,” Park says. So, the materials chosen for the mask come in a variety of colors and designs. “Integrating form and function is key to having a mask that protects individuals while making them look good and feel less self-conscious,” Jayaraman says.

The work of Jayaraman and Park didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic. They received funding 10 years ago from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study face masks during the avian influenza outbreak. Since then Jayaraman has been part of several National Academy of Medicine initiatives to develop recommendations for improved respiratory protection.

COVID-19 dramatically increased the importance of using face masks because of the role of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic exposure from persons who don’t know they are infected, Jayaraman says. While the proportion of aerosol contributions to transmission is still under study, they likely increase the importance of form-fitting masks that don’t leak.

The team will make the specifications and patterns for their mask available to individuals and manufacturers. The necessary materials can be obtained from retail fabric stores, and the instructions describe how to measure for customizing the masks.

“There is so much misinformation about what face masks can do and cannot do,” Jayaraman says. “Being scientists and engineers, we want to put out information backed by science that can help our community reduce the harm from SARS-CoV-2.”

A paper on the mask design appears in the Journal of the Textile Institute.

Source: Georgia Tech