Unmasking Fear

16 : 06 : 2017 Design : Wellness : Pollution
Grime Goes Green by Clean Air Now, London Grime Goes Green by Clean Air Now, London

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92% of the world’s population live in places where the level of air pollution exceeds the organisation’s guidelines. With more than 5.5m people dying each year due to household and outdoor air pollution, according to Global Burden of Disease, it’s no wonder that consumers are increasingly interested in donning pollution masks.

Yet there are a number of stigmas attached to pollution masks, including how wearers can be perceived as a threat due to their face being covered or a bearer of a contagious disease. With this in mind, how are brands mitigating negative perceptions of pollution masks as consumers become more aware of the dangers of toxic air?

‘Most of the masks on the market were very basic and far from perfect in their construction,’ says Alexander Hjertström, co-founder of Airinum, a Swedish pollution mask brand that prides itself on its team of mask designers trained in pattern cutting. ‘Their designs were primitive, reminiscent of the masks worn by dentists or miners. Not something you would want to wear every day.’

While design-led masks such as those developed by Airinum are more attractive and approachable than the basic surgical masks that are widely used in many Asian cities, they still fail to address a key factor that is limiting the widespread adoption of pollution masks – they obscure the wearer’s face and hinder communication.

In Japan, wearing surgical masks is a social norm. But for some consumers, it has become an addiction. Yuzo Kikumoto, author and founder of the professional counselling service Kikiwell, coined the term ‘mask dependency’ to describe how some Japanese consumers have become addicted to wearing surgical masks due to the anonymity rather than health benefits they afford.

There are a number of stigmas attached to pollution masks, including how wearers can be perceived as a threat due to their face being covered or a bearer of a contagious disease.

Around 10 years ago in the UK, the rise of the hoodie was a similar phenomenon, receiving widespread media coverage. Several shopping centres actively refused entry to customers wearing hoodies after becoming aware that shoplifters were using them to hide their face from security cameras. As a 2005 article from The Guardian stated: ‘The hoodie is the uniform of the troublemaker.’

New York-based start-up O2O2, which believes that ‘the future is transparent’, has designed a connected breathing mask that aims to address the issue of anonymity. The mouthguard is made from perspex, enabling people to clearly see the wearer’s face and humanising the practice of wearing a pollution mask. ‘Our facewear is as comfortable and easy to put on as a pair of shades,’ the brand said in a statement. ‘With our patented design, faces and smiles become visible behind the clear protective shield.’

The Woobi Play mask, designed by Kilo for Airmotion Laboratories, is designed to ‘fit into a child’s universe’. The colourful, translucent mask is customisable, encouraging children to take ownership of their safety. According to the brand, its use of materials such as medical-grade silicone and the product’s translucent design ‘aim to achieve effective protection while remaining sensitive to the social needs of users’.

The pollution mask market will continue to grow as the air in urban areas becomes more polluted and consumers become more aware of the toxins they are breathing into their lungs. Research firm Daxue Consulting predicts that the Chinese pollution mask market will be worth £1.1bn ($1.5bn, €1.3bn) in the next five years. Brands looking to innovate in the realm of pollution protection should look to companies such as O2O2 for inspiration on how to make consumers feel more comfortable breathing as well as communicating through a mask.

For more information on how pollution is fast becoming a key concern among consumers, read the rest of our Smog Life series here.