Month: April 2020

A Tale of Two Masks

(Why Felix loves the face mask Kitty hates)

By Kitty

UPDATE (Nov 2020): A lot of changes and new knowledge have come to light since this blog was written.  Some of this content is still accurate, but some of it may have become obsolete.  Please read the more recent mask-related blogs for up-to-date information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and mask-related issues.

In my previous blog, I talked about several types of fabric face masks and their pros and cons.  It was weirdly timely; only a few days afterwards, we were officially informed that masks will be mandatory in some situations to slow community spread, which means we had best get on with finding the best one for us (or at least one we can tolerate!).

For me, the classic pleated rectangle mask is the facial equivalent of an awful underwire bra — it squeezes, pinches, and gaps in all the wrong places.  It looked like this, which is not the kind of glove-like fit you want from a mask: 

Unacceptable Gapping

Personally, I thought the contoured mask style (made with the pattern I tweaked within an inch of its life) is the way to go.  Note the way it lovingly cups my face all the way around. 

Proper Contoured Fit

It’s comfy, at least as comfy as a mask can be.  It doesn’t move around on my face, meaning I don’t need to adjust it with my possibly contaminated hands.  It’s a great mask, for me.

But then there’s Felix, the other half of Felix & Kitty, my partner, CEO, event planner, logistics expert, tech guy, light of my life and golden were-lab by the full moon.  He has declared that:

  1. The contoured mask made him feel like he was inhaling its free-floating lining whenever he exerted himself, and,
  2. The stubble on his chinny-chin-chin dragged  the mask down his face every time he moved his jaws to talk.


On reflection, it makes total sense that Felix and Kitty wouldn’t necessarily share a mask style.  After all, our faces are about as opposite in structure as it’s possible for two human faces to be.  Mine is wide and round with super-broad and high cheekbones, pug nose, and very flat mid-face.  His is narrow and long with a seriously aquiline nose, forward mid-face, and swept-back cheekbones.  Then there’s that stubble issue, which I thankfully don’t have just yet.

Then I had a moment of inspiration, which went something along the lines of “If Felix’s face is the opposite shape from mine, maybe he’ll love the mask style I loathed.”

My reasoning: those pleats (which really bugged me!) would be able to open and close vertically when his beard stubble snagged on the fabric, therefore preventing the mask from riding up or down when he talks.  Since he wouldn’t give up talking, it was the best I could manage.

Also, because his cheekbones were not so up front and wide, the straight top edge might not dig into his face the way it did into mine.  Finally, the pleating, if done correctly, somewhat locks the lining against the outer fabric (think of folding two sheets of paper together to keep them together), keeping the lining from being sucked up against his nostrils when he inhales.  I don’t know why this is never a problem for me.  Perhaps it’s just because of the different angle or orientation of our nostrils.  Or for all I know, it’s because my sluggish metabolism barely needs any oxygen to run, whereas Felix burns calories like they’re rocket fuel and therefore needs a lot more air. 

Whatever the reasons, I got busy, and made him a version of my hated rectangular mask with the accordion pleats.  I only adjusted the pattern slightly, mainly because he, like every other human on Earth, needs a narrower mask than I do.  If I hadn’t narrowed it, the sides would probably have met at the back of his head.  Other than that, it’s pretty much the same shape.

Immediately, it was obvious that on Felix’s narrow, elongated face, NONE of that huge side gap showed up.  It conformed pretty darn well to his face around the sides and chin area, and importantly, the pleats performed exactly as I’d hoped; they opened and closed with his jaw movements, stubble and all, instead of being pulled downward. 

Better fit for me, but…

The only issue I could see was that the top edge, being cut on the straight grain of the fabric, lacked the ability to mould  around the (very sharp and tall) bridge of his nose, leaving an unacceptable gap.

This will *not* do!

I really felt that if he had one of his explosive sneezes, droplets would erupt into the world through that space. This might not be a problem for someone with a wider, lower nose bridge, but on him, it was.

Now, the other thing I’ve been doing (when I’m not sewing masks, I mean) is discovering a passion for gardening.  Or planting a smallish subsistence farmstead.  Anyhow, this gave me an idea. 

I trotted out to the shed and cut some of that soft bendy covered wire you’re supposed to use for tying tomato vines to your trellis, then sewed that into the top edge of the next mask. 

Voila!  A concealed, flexible nose-piece, which can be moulded around even the most impressive nose bridge.  It was a bit fiddly to sew and added a good deal of construction time, but to my mind, totally worth it.  Look how much better the top hugs his nose. 

<PHOTOS (#5s) of gold mask with shaped nose-piece — show one full face view with the least visible puffing of the sides, plus a couple of close-ups of the nose wire>

In Summary

If you have a narrower or longer face, are sensitive to the feeling that you’re inhaling fabric when you breathe in, and/or find that talking makes masks ride down over your chin, it might be worth your while to switch to a pleated style mask.  If you’re a man with a beard, the pleats might provide it with better coverage.  Remember, the best face mask for you is the one you need to touch least often. 

On the other hand, if you have a flatter plane to your face and noticeably wide or high cheekbones, you’ll likely find the contoured mask more comfortable.  Especially if you don’t own any stubble.

But hey, if you’re not sure, why not try out one of each?  In the interests of people who are more Felix-shaped than Kitty-shaped in the face department, we will be adding the Accordion mask to our mask website.  As with the original contoured style, we’ll match every mask purchase with a mask donated to someone in need.

A thought:  the authorities have FINALLY come around to the idea that we should really wear masks for the sake of slowing the community spread of COVID-19.   As of time of writing, they’re even telling us we MUST wear them in situations where we can’t maintain social distancing, such as in some airport scenarios (or, I imagine, in overcrowded shelters, though I haven’t heard anyone mention this specifically).  So if you find you love one mask style and hate the other, you too can sterilize the one you don’t like and donate it to someone in need.  Someone with a different face shape from you….

Important Note

If you’re not absolutely sure of the safe way to wear, remove, sanitize, and adjust the fit of a mask, please familiarize yourself with all of these before you try mask wearing (we have face mask FAQs, wearing and sanitizing instructions, a guide for choosing masks for different face shapes, and a tutorial for fit adjustments, if you need them).

How to Find the Best Face Mask For You

(And why that’s so important)

By Kitty

UPDATE (Nov 2020): A lot of changes and new knowledge have come to light since this blog was written.  Some of this content is still accurate, but some of it may have become obsolete.  Please read the more recent mask-related blogs for up-to-date information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and mask-related issues.

DISCLAIMER: Opinions are divided on the wearing of face masks. If you want to hear more about this topic, you should just head on over to my last blog post, where I discuss the politics and efficacy of mask-wearing in excruciating detail.  Today’s article isn’t about any of that; it’s about finding the mask that feels, looks, and works best you if you’ve decided to give them a whirl.

So I saw this lovely lady at the grocery store.  She must have been an accomplished seamstress, because she was wearing this stunning lavender and leaf-green spring outfit, complete with a face mask made from the same fabric.  Her jacket and trousers fit her perfectly; I couldn’t have done any better (and I am a professional seamstress and designer).

Her mask, however, was a whole other story.

It looked fine from the front.  She probably couldn’t see anything wrong in the mirror.  But from the sides, the mask gaped open.  Really, really gaped.  If she’d owned a few poodles, say, they would have had zero difficulty in covering her nose with doggy kisses, provided they were coming at her from the sides. 

This is my attempt to recreate that mask fit, made somewhat easier by the fact that I recognized the pattern she probably used.  It’s one of the more common DIY face mask patterns out there.

Note the enormous spaces around the side edges.  This is not a good look if you’re trying to contain your coughed-out drops, or to not scoop up someone else’s sneeze spatters.  Here’s the moral lesson: not all masks are created equal, and what’s great on someone else might be a massive fail on you.

Is good fit really all that important?

As some of you already know, your Old Aunty Kitty is a stickler for things that fit.  I’ve gone on at length about good fit in shirts before (it might seem trivial to some, but if you squeeze your G-cup chest into an off-the-rack blouse, you’re a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen!).  But what happens if your face mask doesn’t fit properly in the time of Coronavirus?

Well, maybe absolutely nothing.  Or maybe you keep fiddling with your mask because it won’t stop sliding down your face, and give yourself an accidental COVID-19 nose enema.  More likely, you’ll just find it too annoying to keep wearing, and decide to take your chances with a naked face (and if you sneeze, people had better just be far enough away). 

What makes a face mask good (or bad)?

A good mask is breathable, non-abrasive, face-hugging, as comfortable as a face mask can be.  You might not enjoy wearing it, especially as the weather turns warm, but you should be able to more or less forget about it for most of your day.  It must sit securely enough so you don’t need to keep touching your face to adjust it; however, it must not painfully pull on or squeeze anything, even after hours of wear.

A bad mask might be bad for any number of reasons.  It might be scratchy, block your breathing, gape at the edges, press on your nose, ride up or down when you talk, or be so uncomfortable that you just want to rip it off and burn it at the earliest opportunity.  Kind of like a bad bra, if you wear bras.  Any mask that makes you touch your face is a bad mask.

How can you tell if a particular face mask is right for you?

In the end, the very best mask for you is the one that you’re willing to tolerate.  You have to be able to stand it resting on the sensitive bridge of your nose, covering your all your breathing and talking holes.  ALL. DAY. LONG.  Or as long as you’re outside, anyway. 

The edges of the mask should contact your face all around, enough so if you were to cough, no actual droplets will escape.  Ideally, it will be made from a colour and material that suits your style, because a pandemic is no reason to let your standards lapse.

Seriously, though, a statement mask can give the world a much-needed cheering-up.  Somehow, we humans find a kitten-print or Harry Potter-themed mask (e.g., Magical Masks for Muggles) less grim than those scary surgical masks.  We’ve actually donated colourful masks to health care professionals who wear them OVER their actual medical masks, because their patients find it more reassuring!  Remember that you’re wearing a mask in large part as a public service, so this is worth keeping in mind.

So what are you mask style options?

Remember, I have only my own experiences to draw upon, plus a few testers’.  Yours may be totally different.  You’ll need to read between the lines and guess what might work best for you.  Also, the following only covers some of the most common fabric mask types, because I don’t want this to be 28 pages long.

The basic flat rectangle

The most basic style of face mask is a just a rectangle (or some other flat shape) some ties or elastic attached.  A lot of super-simple, even no-sew, DIY mask projects fall into this general category.

PROS: It’s easy to make or improvise, if you want to go that route, as long as you have the appropriate materials.  Maybe free.  That’s about the only nice thing to say about it.

CONS: Your face is not flat, especially where your nose sticks out of your face.  If you try to cover something NOT flat with something flat, it’s just not going to work.  The edges of the mask will probably be one giant rippling gap.  Your nose will feel squished.  I wouldn’t even bother with this one.

The pleated rectangle

This is what it says on the tin, a rectangle with a few pleats in it, so it accordions over your nose, like my gold version here.  The pleats open up to make space for your nose and 3-D facial bits.

PROS: This is the most easily available style in disposable masks.  Just a guess, but this might be because it’s the quickest and cheapest style to make.  When I was testing patterns, this by far the simplest 3-D mask to cut and sew, since it’s made entirely of straight lines.  There was almost no wasted fabric, which would be a huge deal if you’re a mass producer. 

If this shape works for you, it’s a fine option (although it may be best for people with narrow jawlines, fairly low cheekbones, and flatter mouths; see my experiences under the “Cons”).  If you’re a novice at sewing and want to make a mask, this will likely be a much easier project than one with lots of curved shapes.

CONS: I personally found this mask to be the too fiddly and uncomfortable, and I’m not the only one.  Other people commented that talking can make it ride up or down (I think the pleats catch on some mouth shapes, especially really full lips ), so they needed to touch the mask to adjust it.  This is a HUGE safety no-no. 

It gaped open in front of my ears (I think the straightness of the bottom edge didn’t accommodate the width of my jaw) and pressed painfully on the top of my nose (the straight top edge had no way to stretch over my wide, high cheekbones).  This is the style that woman I talked about in the beginning had worn, so clearly others have this gaping problem too.

The contoured mask

This is the kind of mask that’s made from at least two pieces of fabric cut in a curved shape, so they make a little dome over your nose and mouth when stitched together.  There are many variations on this theme out there, far too many to go over individually, so I’m generalizing here.  If a contoured fabric mask fits you very well, it should look like this — but beware that not all of them do.

PROS: This is the only kind of mask I can personally tolerate.  For a lot of people, this type digs in less at the nose bridge.  There are no pleats to catch your mouth when you talk.  The cupped shape locks the mask over your nose, and makes it much less likely to ride up or down.  Think of it like putting a fitted tea cozy on your teapot (if your nose were a teapot) instead of just throwing a towel over it; the former is much less likely to slide around than the latter. 

If — but ONLY if — the bottom edge is angled correctly, it pretty much eliminates gaping at the sides.  The built-in curve of the top edge means it forms better over different cheekbone heights and widths, so it hugs your face quite well, even in the tricky bits around the nose

Close Fit Around the Nose

CONS: This style of mask is harder to mass-produce, so is less available to buy.  It’s relatively difficult for a novice to sew, because curved shapes mean that some of the edges are on the bias, meaning the pieces will stretch out during construction  if you’re not careful (and stretching can mean gaping!).  If you use the wrong kind of lining, it can seriously impede your breathing, because (unlike in the pleated rectangle styles) the lining isn’t held together with the outer fabric by the pleating process. 

Now I may be biased, since this is the only kind of mask I can wear without wanting to claw off my face, but I’m really having trouble thinking of other cons.  Oh, wait, you can get pretty bad side gaps if the pattern isn’t angled correctly at the bottom edges.   Then it could do this:

Masks with special filtering materials

You know, those masks made with vacuum bags and HEPA filters and Gore-tex and so forth.  I’m referring to the kind you make yourself by sewing with these materials, not actual medical-grade masks. 

PROS: These materials are generally more of a barrier to viruses than regular fabric, if the very few applicable studies are anything to go by.  If you can find a way to seal the edges of the mask to your face, this should provide you with relatively superior protection against infection (if you’re wondering why I sound so lukewarm, I go into it more here.  But like any other mask, they should work just fine to protect the world from your coughs and sneezes if they fit reasonably well.

CONS: The biggest problem here is that a lot of these are uncomfortable to wear and/or very hard to breathe through, especially with exertion.  Some people even report getting panicky from restricted airflow.  Many of these materials have not been safety-tested for use in masks.  For example, many distributors of Gore-tex warn that you should not wear this material over your airways.

Also, depending on the design of the masks, a lot of filtering materials are too stiff to conform well to the bumps and curves of your face, leading to a lot of gaps around the edges of the mask, which might offset the effectiveness of the material itself.  I personally feel claustrophobic even in some regular masks, so I’m not a good candidate for these puppies.

Should you try making your own masks?

If you’re handy with a sewing machine, have access to the right kind of materials, and are willing to spend a few hours doing some facial fitting, you could certainly make a face mask.  There are loads of tutorials out there, complete with free patterns, so I’m not going to go into details here.  Just be warned that some designs fit (much) better than others. 

I personally did not find any that worked well enough for me, which is why I chose to draft my own pattern with lots and lots of trial and error.  In fairness, I have a very wide, flat-planed face with a nonexistent nose bridge, and can never find glasses to fit my face either.  So the problem is probably with me, not the patterns. 

This does mean I can’t really speak as to which patterns are better for you, but I do have some tips to offer.  First, make sure you choose fabrics and linings that will withstand hot water washing and heat drying, and pre-shrink both before cutting.  Pick a close-woven (or tight-knit) fabric without decorative details that feature any punctures or open weave, like eyelet embroidery or lace patterns. 

Stick to breathable materials, or it will be too uncomfortable to wear for a long time.  If you decide to make the contoured style of mask, make sure your lining material has enough body so you don’t suck it onto your nose when you breathe in, or secure it to the outer fabric with a few stitches.

Make sure your elastic is the soft kind that won’t rub or pinch your ears, and be prepared to replace it often, since heat and washing will degrade it faster than your fabric.  If you have sensitive ears (say, if your ears tend to get sore after wearing glasses for a while), you might have to go with ties or elastics that go behind your head, not around your ears.  If your pattern only comes with instructions for ear elastic, I have a tutorial here for how to change them into other styles.

Or you could just “Put on A Good Face”….

If all that sewing, preshrinking, and fitting seems like too much work, you could just buy your mask from us, or from someone else whose work looks good to you.  Realistically, it will possibly cost you less money and definitely less time, and you might even be helping others (since for each mask you do buy from us, we donate one to someone in need). 

Keep in mind that you will likely want more than one, because correct mask use dictates that you MUST clean and dry your mask between every wearing, and should change it if it becomes soiled or damp.  If this is news to you, or even if it’s not, it may behoove you to read through the safe use and sanitizing guidelines.

What kind are Felix and Kitty’s masks?

Our masks are a special variation on the contoured style.  When I was fine-tuning the mask design for donating and selling to others, I was aiming for the following:

  1. Maximum comfort, for a mask you could wear for hours without feeling claustrophobic, itchy, or any need to fiddle with it.  So that meant soft breathable materials, a 3-dimensional shape that creates breathing space over the nose and mouth, and anatomically correct angles that match the angles on your actual face (which minimizes slippage issues).
  2. Minimal side gap.  Almost all the masks I saw tended to have gaps at the same spot, right in front of the ears.  It drove me nuts, until I figured out why this happens (it had to do with the height at which the human ear attaches to the head relative to the level of the lower jaw).  It took me an embarrassing amount of time to fix this problem, but on the plus side, my new masks really do hug your face all the way around now.
  3. Different masks for different face shapes.  To my own surprise, almost everyone can fit within just three adult sizes based on the structure of your mid-face area (see here for an explanation of different face shapes for mask fitting purposes).  I had to draft some pretty gnarly S-bends into some of my pattern pieces, with the result that all of the edges end up being cut partially on the bias.  This essentially means that the perimeter of the mask can magically stretch or compress (within reason, of course) to accommodate facial variations.   No more digging into the bridge of your nose!
  4. Reasonably low cost, low enough that we could produce a goodly number of masks to donate to essential workers who must interact with people in the course of their jobs, like pharmacists and grocery store workers, or people in need who can’t afford them (such as people in women’s or homeless shelters).

And that just about covers it.  Good luck in the hunt for your elusive perfect mask, check out our attempt at it, and thanks to every one of you who is taking the time and effort to curb the community spread of COVID-19 by covering your face!

“Spirit of Calgary Comic” Sale

We first went to Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (CCEE) back in 2009 and haven’t missed a year since. But this pandemic is the proverbial 800lb gorilla in the room that we’re not going to argue with.

We’ll come back in 2021, but thought we should do something special to celebrate the spirit of the event (and all the fun memories made there) when it was originally scheduled to happen (April 23rd – 26th, 2020).

So we’re going to have a site-wide sale – for four days only! Everything on the website ( will be 25% off!

We’ve never done this before – and probably never will again – but it felt like the right way to celebrate the spirit of Calgary Comic Con.

Disclaimer: to no one’s surprise, already on-sale items from are not included in this sale.

NOTE: Calgary Comic Expo has been rescheduled to July 17-19, 2020. Unfortunately, we can’t make it then, but hope it goes well.

A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Face Masks

(Some excellent reasons to wear non-medical masks, and a few reasons not to)

By Kitty

UPDATE (Nov 2020): A lot of changes and new knowledge have come to light since this blog was written.  Some of this content is still accurate, but some of it may have become obsolete.  Please read the more recent mask-related blogs for up-to-date information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and mask-related issues.

Disclaimer: Nothing in the following article should be construed as medical advice.  If you need some of that, consult your GP, not the lady who makes your corsets.  It’s just my considered opinion, folks.

“You know those don’t work, right?”  

That’s what one man walked right up to me to say when I was out grocery shopping yesterday (in my self-made face mask). 

Now, to be clear, we’re not yet under lockdown in the small BC town where we live, but we ARE under strict instructions to stay at least six feet apart from other humans.  So of course this piqued my immediate interest.  What about me wearing a mask was so important that he’d violate social distancing requirements to accost a strange woman going about her business?  Did he believe I was endangering others with my cute doggy-print mask?  I mean, one doesn’t usually feel the need to critique random people’s lifestyle choices unless they’re doing something harmful, right?  

After all, I did NOT feel the need to tell this man that his smoking habit (he reeked of cigarette smoke) “doesn’t work” if he’s trying reduce his risk factors should he contract COVID-19.  Or that his apparently all-candy-bar diet (judging by the content of his shopping basket, as he was in front of me in line at the store) isn’t going to help his immune system respond optimally to infection.  Even though both of those things are true, our social conventions say I shouldn’t tell him he’s making a mistake, unless he’s doing something that impacts me or others negatively.

And yet, this is not the first time I’ve heard of people reacting to face masks with skepticism or even outright hostility.  There are multiple stories of employees being actually forbidden from wearing masks, even when it is an essential part of their job to interact with people, for fear of “instilling fear”.  Grocery clerks at my local store tell me that the head office won’t let them wear face masks because the customers won’t like it.  And people who don’t like it say it’s because “masks don’t work.”

But in Austria, a place traditionally very opposed to face and head coverings, people are now being told they should wear masks when they go into public buildings.  In parts of Asia, face masks are very nearly mandatory any time anyone leaves home, socially if not legally, and pretty much any GP there will probably tell you they are a very good idea.  Nobody has offered a fact-based reason (which is not the same as an opinion; see below) why the wearing of no-medical fabric face masks might be bad for anyone. 

So what’s a thinking person to believe?  This blog is my one-Kitty attempt to break down the complexities surrounding the wearing of non-medical face masks: their politics, cultural context, effectiveness, and potential dangers.  And most relevantly, whether or not we should all be Masked Pandemic Superheroes right now.  Things are about to get very nerdy, wordy, and a bit pedantic, because Kitty (ironically for someone who designs fancy clothes for a living) is by training and inclination a hardcore scientist.  You have been warned.

NOTE: Everything I say is either stated as my opinion, or correct to my best knowledge at the time of writing.  But you know it’s a fast-changing situation, so take that into account if you’re reading in the future.

Do non-medical face masks “work”?

When Cigarette and Candy Man accosted me, two things leapt into my mind: a question and an observation.

The question: if I’d happened to sneeze at the very moment when he was face-to-face with me telling me how masks “don’t work,”, would he be glad that I was masked, or not?  I mean, we do have an current dust advisory due to no rainfall, and I have been sneezy in consequence.

The observation: he seemed to have a nasty smoker’s cough, and for my part, I sure was happy I was wearing a mask at that moment, whether it officially “works” or not.

Do masks “work”?  This is a question without an answer, just follow-up questions.  The real question is, “work for what purpose?”  Also, “what kind of masks?” (Because non-medical masks are not all made alike).  Also-also, “Work according to whom?”  And it gets really, really complicated from there.  Let’s talk about it.

Okay, so can masks keep us from catching Coronavirus?

This is what we’re all secretly wondering.  Very broadly speaking, we don’t know if fabric face masks work to protect you against infection, and to what extent, because not enough properly controlled studies have been done — even though loads of people in other countries have always worn them during cold and flu season, long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.  We have little idea what common materials might be more or less effective at blocking pathogens, what difference good or bad fit might make, or what even how conditions (wind, proximity, temperature, etc) might affect effectiveness in general.

If, you like me, are a science nerd, you may now be thinking of a particular study.  Alas, even the very few studies that have been conducted aren’t directly applicable to real life.  If someone did study how much infectious substance goes through various materials by firing droplets at them point-blank, how relevant is it, really?  No one is going to walk right up to you, look you in the eye, and sneeze directly through your face mask.  The big gaps you see at the sides of a poorly-fitting mask are probably more of a threat to you than droplets flying in through the mask front and centre, in the context of a more realistic scenario, such as someone squeezing by beside you in a narrow aisle when they’re struck by a coughing fit.  As far as I know, no one has studied this yet, so this is only speculation (but an interesting one, all the same).

They tell us you’re most likely to be exposed by touching a contaminated surface then touching a mucous membrane (most likely on your face), or less likely, by actually receiving a droplet expelled from an infected person.  So it stands to reason that anything that reduces droplets that reach your face or keeps you from touching your nose, eyes, or mouth must help, or at least not hurt.  Very few things in medicine are 100% successful, not even actual vaccines, and a things doesn’t have to be 100% effective to count as useful. 

But the expert Dr./Mr./Ms. So-and-so said masks don’t work!

Here’s a difficult truth we all must learn as we become grown-ups: everybody confuses facts and opinions at one time or another.  And sometimes, even experts can be motivated by something other than glowing honesty, such as the desire to relieve a desperate product shortage at the expense of truth, or the fear of publicly admitting that they were wrong before. 

In 1865 (not so long ago, in the grand scheme), a physician was killed, essentially for being too outspoken about a super-unpopular idea, which was that his fellow doctors should – GASP! – wash their hands between dissecting cadavers and delivering babies.  No one in his medical community wanted to admit they may have caused infections that killed loads of women in childbirth, so he was basically bullied into a nervous breakdown and committed to an insane asylum, where he is believed to have died from an infected wound resulting from guard abuse.  This is a true story; look up Dr. Semmelweis.  There’s a lesson in this somewhere.

Remember this scientific fact: no matter how important, famous, or experienced someone is, everything they say is only their opinion, until such time as there’s evidence to back them up.  Meaning that until some properly designed studies have been done and replicated, anything anyone says on the subject of non-medical masks is ALSO only opinion, because we do not actually have enough relevant evidence yet.

In short, people who say home-made masks are totally ineffective are just expressing an opinion.  People who say masks keep you safe are also just expressing an opinion.  So is everyone who says something in between.  This is unsatisfying, but true.

This is not to say that we should not listen to and respect the opinions of experts in their own field, because we absolutely should!  It does mean that we need to think critically, and decide for ourselves, when some expert opinions profoundly conflict with others.  Which segues nicely into the next point….

Why do people in different countries say different things about face masks?

This would make a great topic for an anthropological study, wouldn’t it?  Generalizing broadly, the official stance in countries such as Canada and the US (and large swathes of Western Europe) has been that non-medical cloth face masks are not very useful at best, and harmful at worst.  But you’ve most likely noticed that this is absolutely NOT the prevailing attitude in other places, notably many East Asian countries.  

No one can conclusively say why this divide exists (no evidence, remember?).  But I can attest that the wearing of face masks, medical-grade or not, has been a normal part of life in at least some parts of East Asia for as long as I can remember.  If you had a cold and you didn’t want to miss school, you wore a mask.  If you went to a crowded community meeting during cold and flu season, you wore a mask, and so did everybody else.  If you needed to interact with lots of elderly, very young, or immune-compromised people, such as when taking your grandmother to her check-up, you wore a mask.  If your kid had a cough, you wore a mask every time you went outside, in case you were catching too.  If you were a conscientious sort of person, anyway. 

Do you notice a common trend in all of the above examples?  You were supposed to wear a mask mainly to PROTECT OTHERS, not so much for yourself.  In cultures where everyone is supposed to think first of the communal good before the individual (whether or not they actually do is another matter), the attitude toward masks seems fundamentally different. 

Here in Canada, for example, we tend to focus first on whether we can use face masks to keep ourselves from getting sick, making the our motivation seem essentially selfish.  With the current shortage of medical masks for health care professionals, the mere idea of wearing a mask has become tainted with the notion of stealing something from those who really need it.  Experts who stated that masks aren’t effective (sometimes in an obvious attempt to counter mask shortages) have caused a certain breach of public trust, leaving people more confused than ever — especially now that some North American health authorities have done a one-eighty into saying we should wear masks.

In contrast, say in South Korea, it feels like there’s actual social pressure to wear masks in public, because you’re meant to think about the protection of society as a whole and not your own preferences.  Because of this background belief that masks are a service for preventing community spread, I think it would be very hard for any medical expert to speak against mask wearing without presenting some hard evidence in support.

Even health experts surely aren’t immune to cultural biases, and there’s no denying that face masks are a huge culture shock in North America in a way that they just aren’t in some places.  And sadly, xenophobia and a pinch of racism do factor into some people’s reactions, especially at street level.

But didn’t they say it’s dangerous to wear masks if you don’t do it right?

Yes, there’s the one practical argument that keeps getting put forward against masks, which is that if people don’t know the safe and correct way to use them, they might actually be dangerous (which, presumably, is more of an issue in places where masks are unfamiliar). 

Of course, if you put on or take off your mask with dirty hands, or pull it down to talk to your neighbours, or keep touching your face to adjust an uncomfortable mask, it may do more harm than good.  In which case, would it not make sense to teach people proper mask usage, the way people are now being taught proper hand-washing all over again, instead of blaming the masks?  Imagine telling people they shouldn’t wash their hands because some people might do it wrong and endanger themselves.

So are there any good reasons to wear face masks?

It’s only my opinion, but I think yes, with a goodly number of caveats.

First, it’s because I think of face masks primarily as a tool which is about protecting others.  If I cough or sneeze, my mask will prevent droplets from travelling as far or wide as if I wasn’t wearing a mask.  While I have no idea how much of my sneeze a mask will stop, I feel reasonably confident that it will stop at least some of it from spreading or travelling as far, which is worlds better than nothing.  If, for example, you happen to be one of the small but significant minority that carry Coronavirus without major (or any) symptoms, this could make a real difference to the vulnerable.

Next, face masks increase awareness, both in myself and in others.  If I’m spacing out while browsing the bananas, seeing someone in a mask jolts me into remembering that I need to keep six feet away.  I lost count of the number of times in just one shopping trip when someone in a busier aisle (who was brushing unthinkingly right beside others) saw my mask, jumped a bit, and scooted right into social distancing mode.  We’re being asked to do something which is very foreign to us, so it’s to be expected that sometimes we forget, a visual reminder can help.

Third, I find that a mask keeps me from habitually touching by face.  I had no idea I did so much of it until I started regularly wearing masks.  Every time I jerk my hand away from scratching my nose because the mask reminds me, I’m glad I’m wearing one.  Now, if you find you’re touching your face more because you feel the need to constantly adjust your mask, you seriously need to find yourself a better mask, or alter it for a more secure and comfortable fit.

From a perspective of enlightened self-interest, masks will also protect me and mine if everybody can agree that they’re for reducing community spread more than for up-front self-protection, because in the long run, less spread equals a safer world and a less congested medical system.  Fewer of your coughed-out droplets will be landing on my avocados at the grocery.  And I, for one, would feel safer donating blood if the technician was wearing a mask while bending over me.

Finally, also from a self-centred  point of view: if I accidentally walk into someone’s sneeze, I’d rather be wearing a mask than not, just because I’d prefer to have droplets land on my mask than directly on my nose and mouth.  It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it, until evidence tells me to change my mind.

If we collectively understand that the wearing of face masks is a truly altruistic act, maybe we can remove the cultural stigma against them — perhaps even educate everybody on safe use for maximum effectiveness. 

So what are those caveats, then (or, when shouldn’t you wear a mask)?

If you’re one of those people who think a face mask makes you invulnerable to infection, or gives you license to flout official recommendations about social distancing or isolation, then you are 1) stupid, and 2) shouldn’t wear a mask.

If you don’t know (or don’t follow) the correct, safe way to use a mask — including but not limited to  the right way to put it on/take it off and when or how to sanitize it — you should definitely learn before you try one. 

If your mask fits poorly, it could leave huge gaps which really reduce what effectiveness it has.  More importantly, bad fit could cause you to fiddle with the mask, making you touch your face.  If you find this happens to you, make sure you understand what good fit feels like, and adjust your mask if necessary to make it more comfortable (or find or make a better one!).

If you have difficulty breathing normally through a mask, you should definitely consult a professional before wearing one.  This could be due to a physical or psychological condition, and you shouldn’t try to bull through.

Children or other people who can’t be trusted to clearly express themselves if a mask is giving them trouble should not wear one, or be monitored very closely if they do. 

If you’re buying up disposable surgical masks that health care workers need right now, don’t.  But you knew that already, and anyway, there’s currently no evidence that non-medical masks aren’t just as good for limiting community spread.  A hypothetical question: what’s more effective for protection, a generic flat surgical mask that has great big gaps at the sides and around your nose, or a contoured non-medical fabric mask that hugs your face like a glove?  Maybe someone should run a study.

Some non-medical masks are being made with various filtering materials, like vacuum bags and Gore-tex and so forth.  Be aware that some of these can be stiff, abrasive on sensitive skin, or make breathing difficult, tempting you to pull down the mask whenever you’re not near people.  This is obviously a problem if you then put it back on again with contaminated hands.  Use your common sense — if something is too uncomfortable to wear, it’s probably not going to work for you in the long run.

Masks are going to get a whole lot less comfortable as the weather gets warmer.  It’s something to consider if you suffer from any heat intolerance conditions.  On the other hand, if you have a pollen allergy, masks could do double duty this spring!

In conclusion

So the next time you see someone in a mask, try to be grateful to them for doing their part.  They may or may not be helping themselves, depending on lots of factors, but they are probably helping the community at large. 

And if you’re an employer who’s been discouraging your staff from wearing face masks, think long and hard about what they’re really for, and consider following the example of cultures that recognize that some things are done for the benefit of everyone, not just yourself.  In times like these, we can’t afford to let culture shock and prejudice keep us from doing anything that might help.

Stay safe, stay rational, and remember that we truly are all in it together this time.

Next blog: Fit matters in bras and shirts, fit matters in office chairs, and fit REALLY matters in face masks.  Let’s talk about how to tell good fit from bad, and how to find (or customize) the right mask for you.

DISCLAIMER: Felix & Kitty are currently offering washable, reusable fabric masks for sale; we are matching each mask sold with one donated to an essential worker or someone in need, such as grocery store employees or people in shelters.  This means that sales are going mainly into funding mask donations.  We don’t make any significant net profit, never mind anything approaching a living wage, from mask sales.  All the thoughts I express in this article are my honest opinions, and I’m saying these things because I think they need to be said.