Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous quote, ‘To be or not to be,’ the question of whether ‘to wear or not to wear’ a face mask began swirling around on social media at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortunately for the rest of us, that debate has mostly been resolved in favor of wearing one. Not that the research wasn’t clear in the first place—surgical masks, when used properly, are effective at reducing the spread of viral particles.
“Now that face masks have been thrown into the limelight, we seek to provide a deeper understanding of the different aspects of material selection and design, with the goal of safeguarding public health,” said Xian Jun Loh, Executive Director at A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).
Showcasing that necessity is the mother of invention, Loh and colleagues discuss in their review paper how improvements to mask design, material selection and mask reusability are urgently needed right now. Advanced features such as the ability for a mask to repel water and inactivate pathogens that land on it would also be useful, they suggest.
“Touching a mask surface can transfer some infectious microbes onto the hands,” Loh said. “Thus, masks with antimicrobial activity can help to reduce the risk of contamination.”
Extrapolating into the future, newer face masks may be coated with metal-based nanoparticles, common household chemicals and organic compounds that have biocidal properties. Other materials, such as graphene-based composites with superhydrophobicity and potential for recycling, are also currently being evaluated.
It may be a lower priority at first, but an excellent feature for newer masks would be that of transparency—transparent masks would benefit hearing-impaired individuals who rely on lip-reading for communication, those in the service industry as well as facial recognition software.
“In addition to their key function of filtering viral particles, masks that incorporate multiple functionalities and new materials into their design open up incredible opportunities for us,” Loh shared.
That said, the authors caution that masks are not a panacea to viral transmission—they offer no protection to the eyes, for example—and social distancing remains important. In addition, disposable face masks have been highlighted as a growing source of environmental pollution.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).