Why Those Masks You’re Selling Should Be Rated
...and How to Accomplish That 12/28/2020 | Jeff Jacobs, The Brand Protector
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Hopefully, you’re back at it after enjoying a wonderful holiday season so far. I’m finding that even with social distancing, lots of sanitizing, and an omnipresent mask that there are ways of finding joy in even the most challenging of times. Hopefully that is turning out to be the case for you, as well. 

By now it’s probably safe to say that most of us in the promo products industry are almost verifiable experts on masks, having seen firsthand what a mishmash of silk, cotton, and synthetic fibers are available out there. Masks that come with filters and without, masks that are gaiter-style or over-the-ears and some, like the licensed NFL gaiters, even have ear straps so you can strap on protection both ways. A Google search for “Protective Face Masks for Sale” returns 107 million results — in 7/10ths of a second no less. And the options seem endless — there is every possible decoration with who-knows-where-it-came-from ink, sparkles, and unlicensed characters that can be yours with a few clicks on the web.

But what these fashion face coverings offered up by way of myriad sources don’t have is a label rating how well they block infectious particles. The good news is that’s changing. We all know that face masks are just going to be a part of life and culture at least for the next several months, and balancing safety, comfort and price remains important for your clients. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, has been working with ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials), on industry standards for masks that should be released just after the New Year.

The most fundamental, basic question is, “What is the safest mask and how do I assure that I have that, and my family members and children have that?” Fran Phillips, a former deputy health secretary of Maryland recently told the New York Times. “It’s so startling that we are here in this moment and we don’t have that information.” 

As we know, the promotional products industry pivoted to selling PPE, both for financial survival and to provide a significant service to distributors’ clients. The fact is that the masks being sold at the time had little federal oversight. The Food and Drug Administration regulates medical devices, so that organization shared authority with NIOSH for oversight of N95 respirators, the “95” indicating 95% effective at blocking infectious particles. But those masks were mostly reserved for medical facilities. As a result, most of the masks being sold in our industry were, and still are, cloth face coverings that don’t come under any regulatory oversight. 

When supply was so short back in March and April, and the primary job was to just get something for clients, distributors might be excused for overlooking a clause in the FDA emergency directive that noted these products “may or may not meet fluid barrier or filtration efficiency levels.” Critics of the FDA, using 20/20 hindsight, are saying that the FDA should have said that cloth masks be at least two-layer, fitted, and not made from material that stretches easily. We know that now, of course, but the initial reaction of well-intentioned distributors was to get some supply of PPE for your clients.

“There’s been a critical need for some kind of national program to test and certify masks, and to communicate with people how to use and care for them,” Linsey Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech and a leading expert on airborne viruses, told the Times. Right now, the proposal is for two standards: one high (50 percent filtration barrier) and one low (20 percent). While that may sound low compared to the N95 mask, it is actually better against the actual size of the infectious particles of the COVID-19 virus, meaning closer to 80% effective for the “high” barrier mask.

So, once the new standards are announced, how does it work for distributors, and most importantly, how is this information communicated to end-users? Manufacturers who claim they meet the ASTM standard must first have their products tested by an accredited laboratory, not unlike the process for other products that you expect documentation on. The issue of fitted masks will continue to be important, so suppliers will need to show their masks provide a reasonable fit to a broad range of face sizes. Soon you should expect to see labels noting suppliers have met the ASTM standard on the product or the packaging. 

One final important note, while this is a giant step forward for our industry, there is no federal enforcement mechanism yet. There is a universal standard for suppliers to manufacture to, something for suppliers to use on the masks and packaging, and something to provide more confidence for end-users. But in the end, for now, it is self-regulatory. As always, do the right thing as it relates to providing the very best in protection for your end-user customers, and trust, but verify your sources. 

Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. Connect with Jeff on TwitterLinkedInInstagram, or read his latest musings on food, travel and social media on his personal blog jeffreypjacobs.com. Email jacobs.jeffreyp@gmail.com.
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