Can You See Me Now? An Update on the Great Mask Dilemma

The quest continues for a protective face covering that allows for communication.

Finding a readily-available solution to communicating while d/Deaf during the pandemic is proving a tad maddening. Elaine Morse and I have been sampling products, at first with real optimism, but so far a solution eludes us. In our last post, we included research suggesting face shields that meet certain requirements may be a fix, though more study is needed. Since that time, a news story appeared about face shields failing to protect in Switzerland. The issue may very well be there is not an affordable mass-produced face shield that meets these safety specs, the Swiss story says nothing about the shields that failed, and we have yet to find one.

Regardless, the WHO and the CDC now advise against face shields as a substitute for masks because of a lack of evidence regarding “source control” (the ability of the wearer to protect others from a cough or sneeze).  The CDC recognizes, however, that “wearing a mask may not be feasible in every situation for some people, for example people who are deaf or hard of hearing—or those who care for or interact with a person who is hearing impaired.” In those cases, the CDC offers considerations for face shields including that they wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face, extend below the chin, or be hooded.

Principal challenges to all clear face coverings are fog control, glare, and adequate size of the clear component. If the goal is to view of the wearer’s face for the purpose of effective communication, then these obstacles must also be addressed. To date, we see products that work for two out of three of these challenges. No product has solved glare.

Below are 8 products (some mass produced, some maker initiatives) that we’ve tried or would like to try and what we’ve learned about them.

ClearMask

The author smiles wearing a clear mask that is pushing her glasses high on her face and showing considerable glare.

We had high hopes for ClearMask, a Deaf-owned business. But the masks are a poor fit for either of us. They are too big and would never work for children (although Elaine has a friend who cut one down to use with a child). ClearMask does provide an excellent view of the face, but glare is a serious challenge. Positives are that the anti-fog material works well and they did arrive quickly in the mail. ClearMask is sold as a single-use product. There is now also a ClearMask model that is FDA-cleared as a class II medical device. Clear Mask is only intended for indoor use.

Communicator Mask

A woman smiles wearing a surgical mask with a window.

Originally marketed to medical providers as universal design for communication, this company has caught up with the d/Deaf and hard of hearing market (at least in their marketing). Elaine notes the window is not adequately large enough for effective lipreading, however. Still it’s better than no view at all (and it does have less glare than other products). A doctor friend reports they get soggy and drippy, however. This is a medical grade single-use product that is frequently on backorder.

Smile Mask

Close up of a cloth mask with a large clear window tied around a smiling person's head.

Elaine has ordered these to trial. They are designed by a speech-language pathologist and while they are not anti-fog plastic, the site is selling an anti-fog applicant. The clear window is adequate in size, but glare will be an issue. Machine-washable. Many positive reviews at the site. Child size available. $30.

The Social Mask

A woman with a surprised expression wears a cloth mask with a wide clear window.

I ordered a Social Mask in July and am waiting and waiting to receive it. The site now says it will ship in mid to late September. These advertise an anti-fog plastic and are machine washable, so I’m holding my breath this will ship, fit and be comfortable! $12.99

Concordia Supply Face Shield

A woman wearing glasses smiles behind a face shield that is streaked with glare.

I had high hopes for this shield that Elaine’s sister has been using in her audiology practice. It advertises optical grade anti-fog material, is affordable and it ships quickly! However, I can’t wear it for more than a minute because the elastic is too tight for my large head (the same head that is too small for the Clear Mask, sigh). Another serious downside: this shield does not extend to wrap over the ears (as is optimal for safety). It does accommodate my eyeglasses and has no gap between forehead and shield (an important safety requirement). Other shield observations: hearing yourself speaking behind plastic takes getting used to, and the optics of the plastic is important; you don’t want to be looking through a distorted window. Glare is also a serious issue. $5.99 plus shipping.

Humanity Shield

A young girl wears a face shield with a cloth mane attached to its perimeter.

This hooded shield looks promising (but neither of us has tried it). This is a simple face shield with a cloth (medical grade) droplet barrier extending like a lion’s mane around the plastic shield. The goal is droplet source control (protecting others from your sneezes) and also breathability. There is a youth size available and all are adjustable with a Velcro closure. Downsides are the plastic is not anti-fog and requires an application of dish soap or hand-sanitizer to prevent moisture build up, and of course, glare.  Another drawback is the exorbitant cost: nearly $59.60 for one (and they look rather unsubstantial for the cost, frankly). Handwashable.

Etsy Face Shield Hoods

A woman wears a hooded face shield that drapes around her shoulders.

This is a well-reviewed product on Etsy that looks much more substantial than the Humanity Shield (above) but is probably not appropriate for indoor environments (though it appeals to those of us facing getting out and about in Vermont this winter). Its design has a Jedi appeal that may serve children well, but Elaine says the hood would likely not work for users of hearing aids or those with cochlear implants. Etsy reviewers are wearing them for air travel and to outfit children for school. The shield zips off the cotton hood for disinfecting and washing the hood separately. There’s no indication if it is anti-fog (get your dish soap ready). The seller advertises fast free shipping. Cost is $48.14.

The LEAF Mask

A woman smiles wearing an entirely clear face mask with some dark patches for filters.

This is a high-tech silicone mask solution that I ordered on IndieGoGo to review, but it has been bogged down in production challenges and I’m beginning to lose hope (as are many frustrated IndieGoGo supporters). The LEAF is completely clear, incorporates a HEPA filter, is N99 for particulate removal, and has three models, including one that claims to incorporate UV-C sterilization technology. If this mask actually arrives, I will do a post all about it (I did not order the expensive UV-C model, however). LEAF is anti-fog though glare is clearly still an issue (judging by many of the pictures). $49+ plus filters (HEPA-only model).

If you have a solution that is working for communication, this blog would like to hear about it! Email atprogramnews@gmail.com with Masks for Communication in the subject line.