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The Evolution of the Medical Face Mask

This time last year, no one could have guessed that face masks would be one of the best-selling products in the world. However, as we all know, due to the coronavirus, this practical item has become a necessity of every-day life.


It is interesting to consider the origins of face masks (as opposed to cultural masks), and how this item has adapted over the centuries. According to the Global Times, the earliest recorded face mask-like object in history dates back to the 6th century BC. Carved and/or drawn images depicting people wearing cloth over their mouths were found on the doors of Persian tombs. In China, a scarf woven with silk and gold threads from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) is believed to be the earliest item in China that is similar to the contemporary face mask. Apparently, during the emperor's meals, servants needed to wear these masks in order to keep the servants’ breath from impacting the smell and taste of the food.


In the 14th century, the Black Plague spread across Europe. This further encouraged the use of functional face mask-like objects. By the 17th century, the beak mask was invented. This consisted of glass in the eye sockets to ensure visibility. Perfume, scented spices, or medicine could be placed in the beak section, which was believed to filter out disease. It was further used as part of a costume for carnivals and theatre productions.


By the 19th century, higher-class fashionable women wore lace veils over their faces to protect against dust and bacteria.



By the 20th century, cotton masks were employed by health professionals, primarily during surgeries. More specifically, the global flu epidemic in 1918 sparked the more common use of face masks for medical personnel and the general public.



The new and modern design of face masks is catered to more outbreaks of various infectious diseases, and the rise of polluted air/smog. Specifically, mask models such as the N95 and KN90 have been branded to be primary protective designs. These have given rise to other forms of PPE, including face shields.



Today, the global use of masks has simultaneously caused various designs to be brought to the market, both reusable and not. Many designers have even implemented masks as part of their fashion brands as an upscale product, due to its extremely high demand.


How will the face mask continue to evolve? Will their widespread use remain consistent despite the implementation of vaccinations?


Burberry Face Mask
Louis Vuitton Face Shield

Written by: Samara Fruitman

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