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From maskne to waste mountains: As face masks become a fact of life, they will affect us in a variety of ways

Face masks with us for the foreseeable

In England face coverings have been required in shops since July 24th and in museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship since early August. There is ongoing debate about their wider use in schools and workplaces but so far such moves have not been officially required.

Imperial College’s COVID-19 behaviour tracker demonstrates clearly that wearing face masks was relatively rare before this mandate – only around 38% claimed to be wearing them in public on July 12th for example. When the government advice changed, so too did compliance – currently some 75% claim to be wearing them.

While we are undoubtedly in a better situation with regards to COVID than we were a couple of months back, the future trajectory of the disease is far from clear and many experts do not expect a quick resolution. Earlier this week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), said he hopes the coronavirus pandemic will be over in under two years. In response to this statement, Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has said that “coronavirus will be present forever in some form or another” and that people would need to be vaccinated at regular intervals in order to cope with its continued presence in the population.

Clearly, the scientific understanding of this virus is changing all the time, but it seems highly likely that the virus will be with us for a considerable time to come and, therefore, so will face masks. Indeed, University of Oxford researcher Helene-Mari van der Westhuizen and colleagues argue that face coverings should now be considered not as medical equipment but as a social practice informed by norms and expectations.

The ongoing use of face masks has already started to affect our lives and which looks set to continue. In part, some of these impacts can be filed away under “petty annoyances” – the kinds of things that we’ll just have to learn to live with, such as not being able to use our phone’s Face ID features, fogged up glasses or being refused entry to shops if we’ve forgotten our masks. Others are more extreme and can best be regarded as conspiracy theorist rantings – such as the idea that face masks reduce our ability to take in oxygen or force us to rebreathe our own carbon dioxide which forced a whole wave of Twitter and YouTube rebuttals. However, the ongoing use of face masks will start to affect our lives in both subtle and more obvious ways and will provide opportunities for significant product innovation and brand activity. Here are just a few.

Reducing our ability to communicate

There is lots of anecdotal evidence that face masks are hampering our ability to communicate effectively with each other – both by muffling the sounds of our voices but also reducing our ability to read non-verbal facial cues.

According to BBC Future, “under normal circumstances”, facial expressions form part of a coordinated package of cues – including hand gestures, body language, words, pitch and tone and even face colour – acting together in a congruous way to convey message and intent”.

No doubt, this is in large part because facial coverings are a relatively new part of our lives and, in time, we will adapt to communicating from behind them. After all, cultures where face coverings are more routine – such as the wearing of niqabs and burkas – manage quite easily. In addition to our gradual familiarisation with coping with masks, a variety of solutions are being developed to facilitate our mask-affected communication:

  • Japanese firm Donut Robotics is developing C-Face, a Bluetooth-enabled smart mask that pairs with the user’s smartphone, amplifies speech and translates into eight languages.
  • Several innovators are introducing transparent masks (such as the AIO Transparent Mask and the Civility Next Gen Transparent Mask currently seeking funding in Indiegogo. As the latter’s founder says “I struggled to find the perfect mask to protect my child, the ones I found kept me from feeling my daughter’s emotions and smiles. I really wanted to work on a technology that would enable all of us to fully communicate again with safety.”

Irritating our skin – the rise of “maskne”

Some of the COVID-enforced hygiene practices are themselves creating minor inconveniences such as skin irritations. The protracted wearing of face masks, for example, is creating new skin problems including mask-induced acne – dubbed “maskne”. This is caused by pressure and friction around the seal of the mask (and is particularly evident amongst health care workers) or because some masks can create a seal where humidity, saliva and germs can’t escape.

Skincare brands are responding with products and services to alleviate this, or using this as an opportunity to promote existing products, particularly those with  calming, botanical and natural ingredients as well as single-hero ingredients like Vitamin A or E, retinoids and niacinamide to target acne.

  • Skincare brand Allies of Skin explained the phenomenon of “maskne” on its Instagram account and recommended a morning routine of six products to battle it.
  • Skin Inc. posted a video on Instagram of founder Sabrina Tan, at home in pyjamas, and celebrity stylist Martin Wong discussing makeup and skincare tips for mask-wearers, including how to ward off acne.

Causing mountains of waste

The requirement to reduce transmission of the virus has relegated other concerns such as the environment to a secondary concern, and some of the numbers are quite staggering – Germany had ordered some 12 billion disposable face masks, France 2 billion. The production and disposal of such quantities of protective equipment will take up huge amounts of valuable resources and cause significant pollution, litter and long-term environmental damage, with “a glut of discarded single-use masks and gloves washing up on shorelines and littering the seabed”.

UK researchers have calculated that if the entire UK population started using disposable masks daily, it would create a significant environmental hazard, namely 42,000 tonnes of potentially contaminated and unrecyclable plastic waste per year. Also, most people will have noticed the increased littering of masks in community spaces, which may act as environmental and infection hazards.

Hopefully, as it becomes more and more evident that face mask use will not be a temporary measure more and more of us will transition to reusable solutions. Innovators are working on providing more easily reusable masks to reduce the reliance on disposable options:

  • The light reusable self-sterilizing silver face mask from Dermagate aims to replace all non-medical face masks, while hassle-free maintenance and durability. 
  • CleansBox claims to be the world’s first UV-C light mask steriliser and is designed to disinfect face masks worn to protect against COVID-19, taking between two and 15 minutes to clean objects, depending on the surface, and charging via USB cable.

Confounding facial recognition systems

With more than half our faces including key features like our lips and nose covered by face masks, it’s little wonder then that they severely hamper the ability of facial recognition technologies to do their job, reducing it by between 5-50% according to one study.

Of course, the fact that FRT is largely unpopular, means that this is probably seen as more of a benefit than a drawback. Longer-term though, we expect the emergence of more compelling business use cases for facial recognition, but these may well be delayed by the complicating factor of face masks. Some are already working on sharpening the ability of AI-driven algorithms to correctly identify mask wearers:

  • South Korean convenience store brand LG CNS rolled out a new payment solution at a convenience store within its company headquarters that combines facial recognition, a blockchain-based digital currency and AI. Designed to enable social distancing the technology claims to recognise customers even if they are wearing accessories like a face mask or sunglasses.  

What does this mean for brands?

Retailers must support the adoption of face masks

While retailers now require customers to wear masks, they also recognise that the habit is not yet engrained and people may forget to bring their own, so some are offering to supply masks to such customers.

Dealing with hampered communication

Retailers can also help by endeavouring to facilitate communication, particularly with customers who already face challenges in that area. Staff training, more non-verbal communication, better POS materials, and so on can all help in this regard.

Reducing the environmental cost

Providing cost-effective reusable opportunity is vital and may represent an interesting new CSR initiative for brands to become involved in.

Leveraging the maskne opportunity

Current skincare provision  seems to be focused around the pushing of existing products but perhaps there is also an opportunity for products specifically developed to help with this problem, or with comms designed to promote mask-related skincare to new audiences not so informed about the issue or who have previously been resistant to change (such as older men, for example).

Face masks may themselves become branding platforms

Most professional football team staff members have been sporting club branded face masks during recent televised matches, for example, and Burberry have just launched face masks in their characteristic check print.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED