Medical Examiner

Masks Are Wellness Now

They don’t protect you very well, but that doesn’t matter.

A model with crimped hair and a face mask made of white mesh.
A mesh mask at New York Fashion Week this year. John Lamparski/Getty Images

Protective face masks are poised to become the next major wellness trend. This potential is thanks to our increasingly apocalyptic world, filled with an increasing number of fires, epidemics, and anxiety. It can be easier to respond not by addressing the systemic cause but by personally attempting to protect ourselves from the threat.

Surgical masks have long been popular in East Asia, as journalist Jeff Yang explained a few years ago, following their initial rise after a bout of influenza in the 1900s. Yang writes: “[T]he predilection toward using face-coverings to prevent exposure to bad air is something that predates the germ theory of disease, and extends into the very foundations of East Asian culture.” He predicted that the multiple rationalizations for using them could make “facemask fashion” popular elsewhere. Now, it is. The New York Post knighted them the “must-have accessory” at London’s recent fashion week, where some attendees wore creatively decorated surgical masks. Masks popped up in New York Fashion Week this year and last, on and off the runway. In a recent SNL sketch, cast member Bowen Yang donned a surgery mask decorated with Burberry’s signature pattern. It hardly seems like a stretch.

As is the case with so many luxury wellness things, effectiveness varies wildly based on the particular person, situation, and product. Bedazzled with rhinestones, or even made mostly of mesh, the masks in the fashion shows are more like fascinators than actual medical gear, pure fashion accessory. Attendees who wore dolled-up surgical masks might have been earnestly trying to protect their health—here, I’d argue, is where they tip from mere statement to “wellness product”—but surgical masks do little to protect against viruses. Even robust N95 masks that filter particles are not really the right way to protect civilians from the new coronavirus—in areas where there are enough cases for transmission to be a concern, the reality is that it’s hard to keep your face sealed up all the time, experts say, making other measures more important. The place where masks are truly needed is for folks who work in health care. For the rest of us, hand-washing and other free-of-charge precautions will do better, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

a model wearing a glittery mask that matches her shirt
Good mask/shirt coordination. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Some people wear masks not to protect themselves from others, but to protect others from their own germs, which is modestly effective, and kind. And the masks stand to be genuinely useful against some of our other modern-day catastrophes, too. According to Wirecutter, N95 masks, which filter air, are helpful to protect against wildfire ash, air pollution, and mold. In the wake of one of California’s deadly fires, journalist Rose Eveleth made the case for fashionable masks as an accessory of the future, writing, “in the tomorrow that the Camp Fire portends, we’re all going to need a good face mask.” It’s hard to argue that those masks shouldn’t be well designed, both functionally and aesthetically. One brand Eveleth highlights, the California-based Vogmask, comes in a cacophony of styles, from cheetah (sure, cute enough) to “organic” (whatever the hell that means in this context).

But the promise of the wellness mask goes even further than climate change hell world wardrobe accessory. Vogmask bills its products as “a tool for wellness, style, and a symbol of care for yourself, the planet, and the future.” Get that? Masks are self-care now. The slew of words that Vogmask uses could be in the marketing materials of any number of wellness goods: charcoal sticks that “purify” water, bespoke packets of supplements that do very little for your health, paraben-free shampoo. Like so many of these items, the promise is to keep their consumer safe from threats that are, for many of us, not relevant. Masks have become a way of feeling safe, even as things spin out of control on a global level. The pitch works: Vogmasks are sold out through early March.