Keeping a cool head: Some companies are making safe summer face masks without a ‘sweat factor’

July 7, 2020

As a pastry chef who spends her workdays in a surgical-style mask next to hot ovens, Leigh Omilinsky is no stranger to the face mask “sweat factor”—and she has little patience for those griping about the sticky irritation of covering up during a steamy Chicago summer.

 “This has to be more comfortable than a ventilator,” Omilinsky, 35, of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, recently told The Chicago Tribune.

When health officials began recommending that people wear masks in public places to slow the spread of COVID-19, they turned to whatever was available, be it a hand-sewn fabric mask, cut up T-shirt, or winter balaclava. Now they’re often required, in places where social distancing is a challenge. As Illinoisans cautiously return to more activities put on hold during the pandemic, some are looking for masks that are tolerable for more than a quick grocery run.

Big brands like Under Armour, New Balance, and Uniqlo have announced designs using breathable fabrics, and Chicago mask-makers are experimenting with new styles as well.

There’s no magic bullet, the Tribune points out: Things that make a mask effective at containing droplets that can spread the virus causing COVID-19, like multiple layers of tightly woven fabrics, also tend to make them steamy on hot, humid days. Still, a mask that’s comfortable enough to keep on your face is more effective than one that spends most of its time dangling under your chin, experts said.

“That’s the Catch-22,” said Alan Spaeth, co-founder of Chicago-based PrideMasks. “You make it lighter and more breathable, and it’s not doing its job, which is keeping your particulates close to your face.”

While the Illinois Department of Public Health advises using a cloth face covering, the agency does not specify the type of material. It recommends that the mask be breathable while covering the wearer’s nose and mouth; fit snugly and comfortably against the side of the wearer’s face; and have multiple layers of fabric.

PrideMasks opted for a two-layer design with an inner layer of cotton and an outer layer of athletic microfiber fabric to help control moisture, Spaeth said. PrideMasks also started selling neck gaiters, and both styles offer sun protection.

Mr. Pink’s—a mask-making offshoot of Chicago-based Bangtel, which rents properties in Chicago and New York for vacations and bachelorette parties—originally designed a mask with three layers of fabric and a pocket for a filter. It’s still the most popular, but Mr. Pink’s is constantly experimenting, said owner and founder Liz Klafeta.

There’s also a two-layer option for people worried about overheating. Another has a stiff outer layer that stands away from the wearer’s face, keeping fabric off their mouth. Customers can choose between masks that loop around their ears or tie behind the head. Some styles also offer a choice between an all-cotton mask or one with an inner flannel layer that’s softer against the skin.

Soon Mr. Pink’s will carry a see-through mask with a clear vinyl window along with a line of bachelorette and wedding-themed masks.

“We’ll do it for as long as people need it or are requesting them,” Klafeta told the Tribune. “It feels good to be doing something a little different that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Companies also are adding sizes. Chicago-based menswear maker The Tie Bar, which makes a two-layer, all-cotton mask with room for a filter, added kids’ sizes and an extra-large size after hearing from men who grew “big COVID beards,” said CEO Allyson Lewis.

That said, finding masks breathable enough to wear while working out can be more of a challenge. Chicago requires people wear masks while exercising at indoor gyms. Even for those running outdoors, keeping faces covered on sidewalks and trails where people could encounter others is smart as a safety measure and show of respect, said Chicago Area Runners Association Executive Director Greg Hipp.

Many runners use neck gaiters that can be worn around the neck for easier breathing when a runner is alone, or pulled up over the mouth and nose when others are near, Hipp said.

Under Armour said its “Sportsmask,” designed for athletes, sold out within an hour when it was introduced in June. The mask has structured fabric designed to sit off the wearer’s mouth and nose for better airflow. There are three layers; the one that sits closest to the skin has an anti-microbial treatment and is designed to feel cool.

The company worked with health experts when designing a mask for workers in hospitals near its Maryland headquarters, and used what it learned to make the Sportsmask, according to Kyle Blakely, Under Armour’s vice president of Materials Innovation.

Another athletic brand, New Balance, has said it plans to sell an “athletics-ready face mask” in the coming weeks.

But you pay for what you get: Higher-tech masks can come with a higher price tag. Under Armour’s Sportsmask is $30 — the same price The Tie Bar charges for a pack of five. Masks from Zensah and PrideMasks cost $18 and $15, respectively. Gap sells three-packs for $15.

Research contact: @chicagotribune

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