From coffee to stone: making face masks from unusual materials

Francisco Castro

Francisco Castro

July 29, 2020

After the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed position on earlier assertions about mask “leakage” letting in virus-laden droplets, state and local governments started to impose mask-wearing rules to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Companies across different industries have turned to a wide range of raw materials – from nonwovens and cloth to paper and plant-based material - to produce this ubiquitous pandemic-fighting staple.

Their efficacy may differ, but studies have shown that even the simplest covering can help to prevent contagion. While no mask offers 100% protection, there are some that are better than others.

Health officials agree that N99 and N95 masks with tangled fibers to filter airborne pathogens are the best option against COVID-19.

These masks are commonly made from synthetic plastic fibers and feature meltblown nonwoven filters. University of British Columbia researchers have also developed a compostable, biodegradable version. Dubbed Canadian-Mask or “Can-Mask,” it features a wood fiber frame made from pine, spruce, cedar and other softwoods. One of the prototypes uses commercial N95 filter on the front of the mask while the other a wood-based filter. Scientists are testing both prototypes before applying for Health Canada certification.

If one doesn’t have access to nonwoven face masks, the World Health Organization recommends fabric masks featuring three cloth layers, preferably two layers of 600-thread-count cotton along with silk, chiffon or flannel.

But cloth isn’t the only material face mask producers look to when designing this protective medium against COVID-19. There are other options that are ecologically-sound.

For instance, eco-friendly shoe company ShoeX launched a biodegradable mask using Vietnamese “coffee yarns” and PowerKnit technology. The AirX mask comes with a biodegradable filter made from coffee and nanotechnology, which the company says provides 99.99% antibacterial protection.

British Columbia, Canada-based Stone Paper plans to produce N95 and surgical masks using “stone paper,” which is a blend of mineral powder and an infusion of nontoxic resin. The stone paper does not produce any dangerous emissions. It is waterproof, washable, antibacterial and fire retardant. The stone paper mask may also leave a smaller environmental footprint by not using trees or water in the production process.

Salay Handmade Products Industries, a Philippines-based company, is making face masks from abaca paper. The company claims that abaca paper offers filtration rates seven times better than cloth.

Modishchey Creations is producing reusable face masks from banana fiber woven textile.

In Japan, ultra-thin washi paper, an ancient tradition, is being used as face mask material.

In Egypt, a tour guide named Saeed Waziri recently developed a papyrus mask by removing sugar material from the papyrus plant. The mask can last for a month and is also printed with a Pharaonic design. So, Waziri is not just selling the face mask as protection against the virus, but also to boost the impacted tourism industry.

While the future could hold vaccines and effective therapeutics, Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), believes mask wearing is a trend that will continue post-pandemic, with consumers looking for self-cleaning, self-sterilizing, anti-microbial fabrics.

Francisco Castro covers Paper, Hygiene Products & Publishing for Industry Intelligence, which can help YOU better address your own industry challenges. To arm yourself with the latest market intelligence, contact or call 310-553-0008.

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