Dr. Alex Huffman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Denver, specializes in the science of aerosols — those pesky floating particles that serve as a common vector for transmitting COVID-19 from one person to another — but he still struggled to pick a proper face mask for his young kids as they prepared to go back to school this September.
"Honestly, I can lecture for hours on the principles of all this, but about a month ago before my kids started going to school, I thought 'I don't know what mask to buy for my kids,'" he said. "It actually took me quite a bit of searching around on the internet to figure out a lot of this stuff."
This by no means reflects a lack of knowledge. Huffman and others in his field have worked from the beginning of the pandemic to better understand coronavirus transmission and prevention. What it does show is how difficult it is for many to navigate the marketplace for kids masks, which as medical mask manufacturers point out, didn't really exist prior to the pandemic.
"Something that a lot of people don't realize when they're like, 'Why aren't there more child masks?' Well, there's not really a normal demand outside of COVID for child masks," said Lloyd Armbrust, CEO of Armbrust American, a Texas-based medical mask manufacturer.
Yet as the school year begins and many administrations enforce mandates despite pushback from some parents, the need to supply children with face protection has never been greater.
For parents looking to make the best choice for their kids, the range of options can be daunting.
"Any mask is better than no mask, but at this point with delta [varient] doing what it's doing we've got to be wearing better masks because we've got to be improving our mitigation strategies across the board," Huffman said.
The Search for Quality Kids Masks
What does a better mask for a child look like exactly? That's a surprisingly difficult question to answer in large part because no official standards currently exist to gauge quality.
"One of the biggest issues that I have is there is no standard for these masks, so as a result it's kind of the Wild West," said Anne Miller, director of Project N95, a nonprofit clearinghouse for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests.
Project N95's own marketplace of vetted medical masks has just three options for kids available at the moment. Miller said that this was because the organization is rigorous about what qualifies and that a lot of the current marketing around kids masks is misleading.
"People are producing masks, and they're calling them different things," she said. "They're saying they have an N95 for kids, and there is no such thing as an N95 for kids."
The N95 provides a good illustration of why there is no national standard for kids masks. Widely considered the most protective medical mask, it was never intended for children because the agency that sets the standard, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is focused on workplace safety first and foremost.
"There's no such thing as an N95 for kids, and the reason for that is because the N95 was developed primarily for applications like painting and coal mining," Armbrust.
Miller said the most likely candidate for setting new standards for child masks is the FDA, though right now it's unclear which agency will take on the effort.
In the meantime, Huffman said parents can establish their own criteria based on the available science, which he breaks down into three main categories.
"First of all, pick something that they are willing to wear for the full day, because it's important that they leave it on and wear it well. Second of all, choose a mask that fits well to their face so that aerosol doesn't leak through the gaps on the side. And third, pick a mask that has good filtration quality so it does a good job of blocking aerosols that are going out or in."
He added that head-straps also create a stronger seal than ear-loops. He also criticized standard "surgical masks," which make up the bulk of the market for kids masks.
"Surgical masks are not just not good enough because they're not designed to seal tightly to your face," he said. "They let air rush through gaps in the side and above your nose bridge."
Of course, a child's discretion is also a factor. Huffman said that the first round of possible masks he showed his middle school-aged daughter was roundly rejected because they didn't look good. He added that while this might sound silly, making sure the child actually wants to wear the mask and will keep it on all day is crucial to actually protecting them.
Easing Demand for Masks
For mask-makers, ramping up production of kids masks has been a challenge, but one which the industry as a whole has mostly been able to meet.
"All the machines we have are running 24/7," said Brent Dillie, commercial director of Premium-PPE, a Virginia-based manufacturer of personal protective equipment.
His company is currently producing six million masks per month and plans to hit a capacity of 10 million per month by the end of September. Dillie said demand really started ratcheting up in early August, after a deep lull in demand earlier this year led to closures across the industry.
He attributed the latest uptick in demand for child masks to increased public awareness.
"I think there's been a significant increase in education in the general public as far as which masks to buy, which I think is contributing to the increased demand for children's surgical-style masks," he said. "The science is very clear that an engineered mask like a surgical-style mask or N95 or KN95 is orders of magnitude safer than a cloth product."
That demand is likely to continue through the end of the year, he added, but after that he expects it to drop off again. At that point, it's unclear if the industry will continue running production lines for kids masks. Without steady demand, the costs might be hard to justify.
In this file photo an employee controls FFP2 face masks against the spread of the coronavirus at the production of German producer Sentias in Wuppertal, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
"A legitimate investment in a new line is something like a million dollars per month, so you're talking about asking a company to invest a million dollars into something without a normal demand," said Armbrust. "It's a big risk."
Simply adjusting production lines already in place for adult masks isn't an option either, he added. "It sounds silly but making the mask that much smaller is actually really hard when you're talking about automation at scale."
Dillie noted, however, that he predicts at least some demand for kids masks will persist beyond the pandemic.
"I think there'll be significantly more demand for children's masks than pre-pandemic always, because parents are going to stock up," he said. "I think you'll see schools and daycare centers and hospital systems stocking those ki's masks, but the demand will still be dramatically less than it is today."
Both manufacturers noted that supply appears to be keeping up with demand overall, though that balancing out may be due in part to consumers simply giving up on the prospect of getting their hands on a mask specifically designed for children and simply buying them adult-sized masks.
"I think people sort of gave up on kids to be honest," Armbrust said.