As an apparel designer and head of product development for a myriad of companies, I am constantly searching and researching for the best materials. Sometimes I feel like it’s a never ending quest because new materials are always coming out! My interest in fabrics started in graduate design school where I studied textiles extensively. After a multi-year deep dive into this world and establishing a successful custom suit company in NYC, I am hyper aware that different fabrics have different properties which make them ideal for one specific job but totally wrong and sometimes dangerous for another.
For face masks, I’ve applied my knowledge of fabric to this current endeavor of designing a comfortable fabric cloth covering you can reuse. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been laser focused on creating face masks that are the most protective from virus transmission while striking a balance with breathability, comfort and with a super cool design. Our face is a prime piece of real estate, and a mask is the perfect window into our personality, mood, you name it!
As a mask designer & producer, I feel a major responsibility to create the most safe and effective product as I can. I’m not only designing for myself and my loved ones, but for everyone else’s loved ones. Creating my Children’s Collection really drove that priority home for me.
The Winners Circle
#1 Classic Cotton
Cotton wins; it is the workhorse of fabrics. It is made in a wide range of colors, patterns, weights, weaves at a relatively low price point. This fabric is perfect for custom printing, which I use all the time for my custom mask projects. Most importantly, it was the most readily available of all fabrics at the beginning of the COVID outbreak when the supply chain depleted; hello old button front shirts & bedsheets!
There’s a reason the CDC guidelines outline cotton woven fabric as one of the top effective face mask materials to protect against the spread of COVID19, filtering experiments show tightly woven 100% cotton outperforms most other materials, including synthetics. This means that fibers of cotton that you can find in a common button-down shirt or bedsheet actually blocks the virus better than more expensive competitors. In addition, cotton is breathable and great at regulating temperature while it stands up to washing and drying in high heat, a necessary component to instantly killing any virus.
But, most importantly of all, cotton performs great in humidity. Now, it’s not the best material in a t-shirt for sports, like if you’re playing basketball or soccer. However, as a mask it is far more comfortable on my face when I am breathing into it than other materials. Why? Other materials like polyester and most laboratory produced artificial fabrics feel like plastic over the face after a sneeze. They don’t absorb the humidity or wetness that we exhale, especially in the winter when the air is so dry that we can “blow clouds.” What this means is that not just water, but also oil from your face gets stuck on the surface of the fabric, and then gets smeared all over your face. Just like touching your face with your hands (which you should avoid!), this mixture is what clogs up pores and causes acne and other skin conditions. Not cotton, which has been used as a sterile fabric in hospitals forever now, and is the best material that keeps your face dry, clean, and comfortable.
While I don’t recommend the lining of the mask for comfort reasons, 100% wool is an incredible natural fabric for the outside of your mask. In addition to all the benefits of cotton, there’s an extra 1-2 punch. The rough felted fibers that give wool it’s trademark itchy feel are perfect for trapping virus particles on the surface of the fabric. Wool has hydrophobic properties – meaning water beads on it like on a freshly waxed car, with the ability to initially repel aerosol liquids (sneezes and air-borne water droplets) and obstruct those trapped virus particles from absorbing quickly into the fabric.
Warning! A minor drawback to wool is it is much harder to launder than cotton. Washing in anything other than in cold water and air dry will cause the fabric to shrink and lose its shape. Just be careful your wool mask doesn’t slip into the wrong washing cycle!
Not just a pretty face, this fabric of Asian origins has serious muscle. Silk is breathable and lightweight but does not compromise on protection. Why? Silk has greater hydrophobic properties over Cotton, Wool, and Polyester, making it better at repelling and blocking aerosol virus particles from absorbing into the fabric. Adding layers to silk further increases its ability to filter aerosol droplets, referred to in studies as electrostatic filtering; where electrically charged fibers trap particles through a static “cling” effect. These properties combined allow a 2-layer silk mask to be as effective a 3-layer cotton face mask. Taking these factors into consideration, a peer reviewed study published in the journal of Public Library of Science concluded that silk face coverings protect as well as disposable single-use surgical masks!
Fun fact: Silk is so lightweight and strong that it was the original fabric used in parachutes! This made parachutes WILDLY expensive, and during the wars, a one-time-use item. For this reason, soldiers would often carry their parachutes during the war and gift it to their brides to be upon return, to have them fashion wedding dresses out of the white magical materials for their special day.
There is a lot of buzz about the beauty benefits of mulberry silk pillows and sheets, which has now refocused on face masks. Silk has antimicrobial and hypoallergenic properties which is why it’s marketed as the secret weapon against the dreaded Mask-ne. While the science has yet to be proven to back these claims, it can’t hurt to combine it with materials that already have.
Silk is an excellent material for masks, but there are a few caveats. It is exclusively produced in China through a manually labor intensive process, making it one of the most expensive materials available. Unfortunately, it also does not stand up to washing and drying as well as cotton. Repeated laundering even on medium heat causes it to break down, which means cold water and air dry to make silk masks and other clothes last as long as possible! From a design perspective, there are significantly fewer colors and patterns available in silk, which may not bother some people who prefer solid colors (I am not one of those people!) Finally, this goes out to anyone planning to sew their own mask; be warned, this fabric has a mind of it’s own and loves to wriggle and wander under the sewing machine foot!
Didn’t Make the Cut
There are many fabrics not suitable for masks that spend a lot of time on your face. For the following reasons, I do not use these materials in mask production and you probably wouldn’t want to either.
T-shirt Materials & Bandanas
Simply put, the open weave is too large to block the microns according to a Mayo Clinic Study. This is like using a screen door to block a shot from a Super-Soaker water gun. For those who don’t know, a screen door is NOT effective against a shot of water from a toy water gun. Just like a screen door, I do not feel safe wearing masks made in these materials, so I am certainly not going to use them in the masks I make!
Ok, I know I’m going to be met with resistance here but hear me out. I stand by my decision to cancel out this fabric category for my masks. As a personal preference, natural fibers are usually my starting point on all projects. They breathe, regulate temperature really well, and most importantly they are not chemically based. I don’t like chemicals in my foods, my beauty products, or basically anything else I consume really, so why put that on my face!
If a technical fabric is the best for the design, I will of course select the best material for the job. But, specifically for masks, I do not use polyester for these reasons:
- Decreased Virus Protection
Do I have your attention now? There’s a good reason CDC guidelines state a cotton woven fabric is one of the most effective face mask materials to protect against the spread of COVID19. The American Chemical Society published a study in their Nano Journal demonstrating how polyester and other synthetic fabrics fail against natural fabrics. Worth a read.
An uncomfortable fact is that synthetic materials used for masks are promoted for their comfort and breathability. However, these fabrics are commonly made in porous knit fabrics that virus particles can easily get through (remember: screen door water gun). Enough said! For woven synthetic fabrics there is compromised breathability, comfort, and moisture build up within the mask. Think about all those bridesmaid dresses you sweated your butt off in or how you feel wearing a full polyester suit … need I say more?
What about sports masks with wicking properties? Great concept for sure and I love performance fabrics for working out! The only hazard I see in a face mask is that depending on the moisture balance, virus particles that land on the outside of your mask can potentially draw toward your mouth and nose vs away – especially with vigorous breaths that SUCK in air while you work out. I’m still open to the idea, but right now it’s just not a risk I’m willing to take!
- Won’t Last Long for Daily Wear
I’ve seen so many polyester masks fall to pieces especially after washing. Why? Polyester fibers break down and melt when exposed to high heat, which is needed to instantly kill the virus particles. This is bad for longevity with reusable protective clothing as the garment will fall apart more quickly than those made with natural fibers.
This may not be an issue for someone who frequently loses their mask and is ok buying $5 drug store masks (after five of these masks, you may see the benefit of a radically fashionable MPress Atelier mask 😉 ). But the costs do add up! It’s actually less expensive to pay more upfront for a well made mask that I can wash and wear for months vs one that will fall apart after a few wears. Plus, since you invested up front, you may find yourself more careful not to lose it!
Ok, I know what you’re probably thinking, there are so many masks on the market in all kinds of fabrics, why would anyone make something that wasn’t safe? I mean, besides the infinite examples in history (asbestos, morphine, tobacco, etc.) currently there is no enforceable industry standard testing for reusable fabric face masks. So be aware that it is still very much the wild west and entirely on the consumer to do their due diligence.
So there you have it, my top fabrics for face masks!
I exclusively use the materials in the Winner’s Circle, sometimes mixing between the fabrics, my go to fabric is Cotton for it’s winning combination of breathability, versatility, toughness, availability, price point, ease of construction, and unlimited color and print options. To spice things up I sprinkle in Cotton-Silk Blends, Silks and Wools – but use those on the outside of the mask. As my masks have evolved in design, silhouette, and features, the foundation has always stayed the same, being exclusively made with 100% natural woven fibers. Once past 2 layers the benefits of cotton equal 2 layers of silk.
Update March 10, 2021: A new study further confirms Cotton as the best material for reusable face masks
Study Indicates That Humidity in Breath Makes Cotton Masks More Effective at Slowing the Spread of COVID-19
In my analysis of the best and worst fabrics for face masks I rely heavily on scientific research to support my conclusions. While the accuracy of the conclusions generated in the above mentioned studies still stand up, they overlooked an important real-world factor – these face covering fabrics end up damp from our breath. This study by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute examined a spectrum of materials and how they perform in the real world under realistic conditions. Much to researchers surprise cotton fabrics become better filters when they absorb the moisture from your breath than previously demonstrated.
Synthetic fabrics, scientifically proven to perform poorly compared to dry cotton, were also tested and did not improve in performance under humid conditions. These materials continue to stay on my “Do Not Use” List.
I’ve made no secret of choosing cotton as my Gold Standard for reusable face masks and for this reason it is the foundation material of every mask I make. While this is excellent news for the efficacy of my mask collections, from an environmental perspective this is also great. With mounting waste from disposable surgical masks that shed micro-plastics, it is comforting to know cotton face masks provide a safe, reusable option!