National Consumers League

That fashionable new mask may cost more than advertised

headshot of NCL Health Policy intern Talia

By NCL Health Policy intern Talia Zitner

Every time I open my Instagram page, I’m inundated with ads for face masks boasting of their safety, style, comfort, and use of sustainable materials. From Urban Outfitters to the National Gallery in London, England, it seems like everyone has started to sell masks. On the one hand, this is reassuring. If consumers are good at anything—particularly during this pandemic—it is online shopping. Seeing masks created with iconic prints, trendy designs, and labeled with their favorite brands, might inspire increasingly more consumers to wear masks—especially the target audience, young people, who use more social media.

At the same time, some of this advertising can be misleading to consumers who are trying to stay protected and on-trend. A few weeks ago, I saw a meme of a woman wearing a mesh face mask at a store. The mesh was pretty, but it certainly wasn’t protecting her or the other people around her from COVID-19. As new data about the virus and the way it spreads has emerged over the past several months, it has become vital to wear a safe mask in public.

The best masks, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) have at least three layers of fabric, with an inner layer of absorbent material, such as cotton. The layer in the middle is best if made of a material such as non-woven polypropylene. Lastly, the outer layer is most effective when created with a non-absorbent material, like polyester. Since the virus can stay in the air for up to several hours, it’s crucial to have a mask with the right layered materials, especially for those who work in close, indoor environments. Usually, these masks are called N95s and are the masks typically seen on health care and other essential workers.

Herein lies the dilemma: not everyone has access to N95 grade masks, but they do have access to online stores. Still, just as NBC consumer reporter Vicky Nguyen showed in a recent segment on the Today Show, any mask is better than no mask at all.

When searching for the right mask, consumers should be sure to carefully read the mask description to understand what level of protection the mask will provide, what the mask is made of, how big the mask will be, and how the mask will fit their face.

Their lace mask is made of 50 percent cotton, 5 percent elastane, and 35 percent dacron. I had no idea what dacron is, but upon further research, I discovered it’s actually a polyester batting. This particular mask is made up of 85 percent of the materials suggested by WHO that would make it a safe mask. Would I wear this mask on a walk in my neighborhood or to a socially-distanced picnic? Sure. But if I were going to be in conditions where the virus would spread more easily, I would probably want to wear something a little sturdier. The best advice for people wanting to look AND act the part is probably to double up on the masks themselves. Layering a more protective mask under a fashionable one is a great way to keep yourself and those around you safe.

Luckily for consumers, masks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns. It’s becoming a more culturally accepted form of self-expression. If you haven’t already, take some time to explore sustainable and ethically made masks from your favorite stores, grow your collection, and remember the hottest fashion trend right now is keeping yourself and your community safe and healthy.

Talia is a Washington, DC native and a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University, where she is studying English. Beyond health policy, Talia’s interests are in journalism, law, and social justice.