If you’re looking for a face mask, options abound. But whether it’s leopard print, splashed with your team’s logo, or the standard blue medical variety, all of these opaque masks have one problem in common: They cover half of your facial expressions. They’re challenging for the deaf community, not great for babies’ development, and can be dehumanizing.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) decided to do something about that. In partnership with Swiss Materials Lab EMPA, they’ve created a transparent, bio-based, and degradable surgical mask. It’s not just a concept. Their new startup, called HMCARE, secured $1 million in seed funding, and the masks will be brought to market in early 2021.
This isn’t the first time a transparent mask has been designed, but previous iterations were either flawed in execution or weren’t ready to be produced at scale. Take the well-intentioned fabric masks with a plastic window over the mouth. The plastic itself isn’t breathable—not something I’d want to try smiling behind on an 80-degree summer day. And, for the deaf community, it can still make reading lips difficult because of potential glare and because the surrounding fabric covers movement in the jaw and throat that indicates various sounds. And while there has been a mask made out of bacterial cellulose, it’s currently just a prototype and hasn’t been certified.
Klaus Schönenberger, the head of EPFL’s EssentialTech Center, was inspired to launch the project after seeing the medics working in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak in 2015. They pinned portraits of themselves to the front of their coveralls to make interactions with patients more personal and less scary.
The final product, called HelloMasks, was developed by several members of Schönenberger’s team. They used a process called electrospinning, which produces a porous, semitransparent material out of polymer fibers, according to a video on the product. The fibers are 100 nanometers apart, which is small enough to filter out viruses and bacteria, but large enough to breathe through. The disposable masks are 99% biomass-derived and biodegradable, although not yet completely eco-friendly, according to Pelet. While the masks were in the works before COVID-19, the pandemic brings new purpose to them.
The masks are considered a class 1 medical device in the EU and as such had to meet specific standards. In the United States, classification depends on the mask type: Surgical masks are a class 2 medical device, while face masks for the general public aren’t classified at all. While HelloMasks meet EU standards, the release doesn’t indicate whether they meet U.S. regulations for surgical masks.
HelloMasks will first be sold to the medical community, in keeping with the company’s aim to make interactions between health workers and their patients more personable and congenial. They may eventually be rolled out to the public. I, for one, would sure like to reintroduce small gestures like a smile of thanks to my grocer or a neighbor who holds the door open. That’s a clear benefit for everyone.