Face masks have temporarily turned gilt for textiles and apparel manufacturers, offering unexpected dividends. Teaming up with companies offering anti-microbial solutions, enterprises have flooded the markets with a wide array of surgical and respiratory masks. Designers have also jumped into the fray, making masks a necessary fashion accessory for many.

As soon as the novel coronavirus started spreading beyond the Chinese frontiers early this year at a scale that few had imagined, the first basic requirement of all affected countries was face masks— both for people as well as doctors and frontline healthcare workers. This led to several companies manufacturing textile and medical hygiene products to scale up production of such masks. Enterprises that had never been into face mask production also set up units to manufacture these items as demand rose exponentially. There were a few like Apple that came out with special masks for their employees. LG announced a rechargeable mask in August. For many, masks became a fashion statement.

The pandemic boosted the market for respiratory (N95, KN95, FFP2, FFP3, P95, R95) and surgical (3-ply, 4-ply, 5-ply) masks. According to US-based Arizton Advisory & Intelligence, the global face mask market would reach an absolute growth of around 90 per cent, contributing over $2.7 billion incremental revenue between 2019 and 2025, a period in which it will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11 per cent. With the increasing adaption for face mask for personal use, reusable face masks are witnessing high demand with market value expecting to reach $170 million by 2025.

Another projection by Allied Market Research says the global face mask market size was valued at $1,523.0 million in 2019, and is estimated to reach $2,455.4 million by 2027 with a CAGR of 4.4 per cent from 2021 to 2027. According to the latest N95 respirators market research report from Technavio, the pandemic will drive the global N95 respirators market size to grow by $382.90 million from 2020 to 2024, representing an impressive CAGR of over 9 per cent.

Even after the pandemic is brought under control, a sizeable percentage of people are likely to continue wearing masks in crowded places and cities where pollution levels are high, a study by Dubai-headquartered Future Market Insights (FMI) says. The global surgical masks market is forecast to surge past valuation of $4.2 billion by 2030. Basic surgical masks and fluid/splash resistant surgical masks are expected to collectively account for 80 per cent of market value, each holding a share of near-equal proportions. Europe is poised to capture the lion’s share in market value, accounting for a share little below two-fifths of the market value.

The world has also witnessed a rising trend of surgical masks for personal use. Though health authorities in several nations have recommended the use of N95 masks only by healthcare workers, the public is also buying these masks to minimise the risk of infection. Such factors are significantly boosting sales.

However, high prices and the rise in popularity of face masks have led to the emergence of counterfeit brands, according to Allied Market Research, which said counterfeit brands are usually available in developing economies with highly price-sensitive customers. This hampers the sale of the original brands there. Counterfeit brands are of low quality and often lead to inconvenience and safety issues that subsequently develop negative perceptions among customers. Online distribution channels are one of the major platforms where transaction of counterfeited brands is easily concealed. Thus, the counterfeited industry’s growth is anticipated to hamper the face mask market growth.

According to Grand View Research, which has its headquarters in San Francisco, the global disposable face mask market size exceeded $74.90 billion in the first quarter of 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 53 per cent from 2020 to 2027. The unprecedented spread of the pandemic drove the demand for disposable face masks, which are typically made from nonwoven fabrics and available in a two or three-layer form. Asia Pacific emerged as the largest market for disposable face masks in 2019, having accounted for a market share of 33.7 per cent in 2019.

China, for long the largest respirator mask producer and exporter, made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there. It has raised production by nearly 12 times since then by expanding its output of surgical and respirator masks on a war footing. Daily production rose from about 10 million at the beginning of February to 115 million at the end of the month, according to the Chinese government.

The US government ordered Honeywell International to expand its production of N95 masks. 3M is committed to producing 50 million masks for the US medical authorities during the pandemic. Rich countries in the West and Middle East also procured masks from manufacturers from several developing economies. For example, Vietnam’s Dony Garment Factory supplied face masks to around 30 US states, Japan and several countries in Europe and the Gulf region.

Dozens of companies and start-ups around the world claimed their face masks or technology used therein inactivated most varieties of coronavirus in the shortest possible time. US apparel manufacturer Renfro’s face masks use DuPont’s Silvadur 930 antimicrobial technology.

Hong Kong-headquartered InnoTier, owned by the Julius Group, manufactures InnoShield reusable masks using material blended with US ionic technology. The mask harnesses the power of 99.9 per cent pure silver woven directly into the fabric to reduce the viability of viruses and microbes on soft surfaces. Pandemic has not affected its production capacity much and it can easily manufacture 300,000–500,000 pieces of mask a month, with the flexibility to expand further. Being a new brand, it has been focusing on the domestic market. However, it is exploring to set up offices in Southeast Asian nations and the United States to serve those markets better. The mask can be used 200 times, it claims.

Companies offering anti-viral treatment technology had a field day by partnering with mask producers. Canadian firm Stormtech, with presence in Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific, Russia and Middle East, launched face masks with the ViralOff technology of Swedish firm Polygiene. “With ViralOff, over 99 per cent of the microbes in the textile are reduced within two hours, which means that you can let the product rest and within two hours it is good to go again,” says Polygiene chief executive Ulrika Bj?rk.

Germany’s Maloja Clothing harnessed its knowledge of functional sport clothing to manufacture face masks in its units in Portugal and Bulgaria. According to its founder-CEO Klaus Haus, the three-layered reusable mask is made of breathable polyester fabric and is finished with Polygiene’s ViralOff treatment. The company faced problems in March and April and was forced to use stock fabric to fulfill mask production. It normally sources fabrics in Italy but with the shutdowns, it had to shift sourcing to Portugal. Its supply chain issues are over now.

Switzerland’s Keller Trading SA and KT Home SA in October launched the reusable Testex community mask, which adheres to the new specifications of the Swiss government and the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Taskforce.

European fabric expert Wise Protec too launched new washable and reusable face masks with an anti-microbial formula certified as skin safe and which does not include heavy metals like silver or zinc. The long lasting, positively-charged anti-microbial coating attracts negatively-charged virus and bacteria. On contact with the treated surface, the novel coronavirus’ protective membrane ruptures, destroying the virus, the company claims.

Switzerland-based HeiQ manufactures two models of community facemasks and a FFP2 (removes 94 per cent of all particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter or larger) mask, which cannot be reused. The community masks are made in Vietnam with the fabrics sourced locally. The FFP2 masks are manufactured by its Chinese subsidiary.

For the masks, production capacity wasn’t really the problem, but the pandemic put up logistics challenges, for which the company chartered Swiss flights and repurposed those for bringing masks from Asia to Switzerland, according to Hoi Kwan Lam, HeiQ’s chief marketing officer, product management.

The company witnessed a lot of demand for its Viroblock chemistry and had to run double shifts and weekends. Since the pandemic started, it has sold the chemistry to treat at least a billion masks globally.

Italy-based Cifra’s Warpmask is a filtering, protective and reusable mask treated with HeiQ Viroblock, a treatment that combines silver with vesicle technology for anti-viral and anti-bacterial effect. The silver technology attacks the inner part of the virus, which is thus destroyed in few minutes, Cifra CEO Cesare Citterio told Fibre2Fashion. Cifra’s Warpmask is made of polyamide and elastan (Lycra), and another variant, Eco Warpmask, is made of Econyl and Roica Eco-Smart elastomer. It can produce up to 50,000 masks a day. During the pandemic, as Italy initially faced scarcity of masks, the company converted a part of its manufacturing capacity to produce protective masks. There are many uncertified masks in the market now, the efficacy of which is not proven, Citterio cautioned.

Indian scenario

The India surgical mask market was valued at $71.73 million in 2019, and is expected to reach $157.13 million by 2027, registering a CAGR of 10.3 per cent from 2020 to 2027, according to Allied Market Research. Ecommerce platforms like Flipkart, IndiaMart, Amazon, 1mg.com, Smart Medical Buyer and Pharmeasy repurposed their online digital marketplace to help connect the manufacturers of surgical masks to domestic wholesalers, retailers and distributors. For instance, Thea-Tex Healthcare (India) Pvt Ltd tied-up with Amazon for providing full range of Filtra branded products across the country.

With India’s surplus face mask capacity choking production lines, the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry in June asked the government to lift the ban on export of non-N95 masks to help manufacturers clear unsold inventories and resume production at full capacity. The government had in March banned export of all kinds of masks to avoid any shortage in the country. In May, it allowed export of non-medical and non-surgical masks made of cotton, silk, wool and knitted materials but export of all medical and surgical masks remained prohibited. It has now relaxed that ban with restrictions.

India, according to the association, has a production capacity of 1.5 billion three-layer masks and after accounting for domestic demand, the surplus capacity is 532.03 million. Out of a manufacturing capacity of 59.4 million pieces of four-layer masks, 1.9 million is spare capacity. Similarly, the country has 5.05 million surplus capacity of reusable/ washable masks. It has a production capacity of 31.2 million pieces of N95 masks, of which 1.05 million is surplus.

Now that people have started stepping out, the purchase of masks has increased, Gayatri Khanna, creative director at Gaya, which manufactures stylish embroidered anti-viral masks using cotton, denim and silk, told Fibre2Fashion. As Gaya masks carry intricate embroideries and embellishments, it is a challenge to showcase them on such a tiny piece of fabric, and make sure the embroideries are not heavy, or scratchy, she said. The masks are exported to the US, the UK and Europe through sister concern Milaaya Embroideries.

Fabric brand Tevero, marketed by Krusha Enterprise LLP, launched in India its Virus Shield collection of facemasks incorporating HeiQ technology and is selling those on Amazon. Nandan Denim Ltd launched its collection of protective fashion denim masks named CareMask. The fabric is anti-bacterial and anti-viral made from pure cotton and the mask is available in both double- and triple-layered types.

Technical textile start-up Thermaissance claimed its nanotechnology-imparted textiles can inactivate 99.99 per cent coronavirus in less than an hour. A team of researchers from the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine, inStem, Bengaluru, reportedly developed a germicidal fabric called G-fab, for use in face masks.

UniMask, which manufactures anti-viral, cotton-blended, two- and three-layered masks and customises masks for companies, uses the Healthguard technology from Australia.

Its anti-viral masks can be used 100 times. Its CEO Kapil Bhatia said due to the unprecedented global rise in disposable masks production, these masks are accumulating in landfills and have started washing ashore on beaches, posing a far bigger threat than what we are currently facing. The only possible way the world can save itself from this global hazard is by using cloth masks recommended by major health organisations across the world, he said.

Genes Lecoanet Hemant has infused its reusable masks—which adhere to US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines—with an artistic fervour, ensuring that the protective aspect is prioritised. Its masks from the Ayurganic collection is made with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified cotton and is hand treated with Ayurvedic recipes. “We need to acknowledge that this is a product of a circumstance, and an unfortunate one at that,” said co-founder Hemant Sagar.

Evolution of mask market

HeiQ feels more comfort and functional technologies will be added to differentiate masks. According to Gaya’s Khanna, people are buying fancier and more stylish masks as a value addition to their look and masks will be the next “must have” accessories. From pale to funky, markets are flooded with different types of masks that can complement people’s outfits and persona, UniMask’s Bhatia said, adding that people will start investing more and more on masks and experiment new patterns, designs, materials and technology, while comfort and safety will remain the foremost factor.

The growing concern of informed and knowledgeable consumers about the environment and society will see some consolidation in the near future for the face masks market, and only those brands that fulfil these quality and sustainability demands would win, InnoTier believes. The course the novel coronavirus takes will definitely have a bearing on the mask market’s trajectory.

This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of the print magazine.