Months into the pandemic, many hospitals are still facing shortages of N95 masks. For the rest of us, the masks that are available—especially the surgical masks that are most effective at preventing the spread of the virus—often don’t quite fit. But a simple new add-on could help correct that.
Called the Essential Mask Brace, the device is designed to fit snugly around the edges of a loose-fitting mask, helping better protect both the person wearing it and everyone else. “Fit is critical, because as you’re inhaling, you are hugely susceptible to breathing in airborne particles,” says designer Sabrina Paseman, who created the device and cofounded a startup called Fix the Mask. “By doing something as simple as just pressing it against your face, not only are you protecting others from you, but you’re protecting yourself from the outside. A sealed filter will protect both sides. I think a lot of the statement from the beginning was ‘wear masks to protect others, but you’re putting yourself at risk no matter what.’ But if you have a sealed filter, you can actually protect both yourself and others.”
Paseman, a former mechanical engineer at Apple, started working on the design early in the pandemic as she watched a family member working in a hospital struggle to find protective equipment. An early iteration of the design—working with materials that Paseman had on hand—used three rubber bands to form a tight seal around a surgical mask. The design worked, but it wasn’t particularly comfortable. The new brace, made from a rubber sheet, also went through a variety of iterations.
To deal with the fact that people’s faces come in different sizes, making it difficult to get a universal fit, Paseman ended up adding a bristle-like design to the top of the mask. The rubber bristles hug the nose. “That bristle is the key to actually making it mass manufacturable but also sit on a variety of different faces comfortably,” she says.
There’s growing evidence that even imperfect masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19; countries where mask-wearing is widespread have seen far lower rates of disease. But proper fit helps even more. The team tested the “fit factor” of various masks, a protocol that looks at how clean the air is inside a mask is compared to the outside. For a loose-fitting cloth mask, the fit factor was 1.6, meaning it was 1.6 times cleaner than the outside. For a surgical mask, the score was 2.7. But when they added the brace to seal the surgical mask, the fit factor jumped to 200. (A test with a sealed cloth mask didn’t perform well, although the team only tested one mask with a stretchy fabric, and recent studies suggest that the right combination of fabrics can be as effective as N95 masks.)
“It shows that when you have a high-quality filter and it’s sealed, it’s way better than not sealing it,” she says. “There’s that phrase right now that anything is better than nothing. But I think having numbers around how much better you can actually make something is really important to get out there.”
Fix the Mask is currently finishing a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and then will begin mass manufacturing. They also hope to work with partners to donate some of the devices. “From the very beginning, we’ve been very keen on helping specifically people that are not being helped by our governments and communities right now,” Paseman says. “We’re never going to get over this pandemic if we leave anyone out.”