When you have a mask strapped to your face all day, you may begin to wonder what you’re breathing in, on top of the germs you’re trying to block out.
After all, some fabrics are chemically treated with dyes, starches, and other elements to make them vibrant or wrinkle-proof – or both. Many of these elements are inert or are removed when washed, but the questions about chemical exposure may persist.
Since a linen mask from Shiitake Creek went to the best-seller list on the craft site Etsy – after being highlighted in an article in USA Today – countless mask makers have added “organic face mask” as search words to their Etsy profiles. However, typing the word ‘organic’ and actually using pure materials are two different things.
Is it worthwhile to go fully organic to avoid breathing in these elements? Does it make a difference at all? Let’s take a look.
What is an organic face mask?
This essentially means the fabric is made from organic cotton, with little or no chemical processing. Cotton, of course, needs to be treated in the steps between being picked in a field and being ready to stitch on your sewing machine.
Here’s how it happens
To be certified organic, cotton needs to be treated a certain way as it is grown, harvested, processed, and sold. Each step has its own guidelines, otherwise the cotton doesn’t make the grade. In terms of farming, organic cotton uses fewer chemicals to minimize the crop’s impact on the environment. Its growers use fewer and less toxic fertilizers, replenish the soil between crops, and avoid genetically engineered seed.
After it is picked, the cotton is stabilized with cornstarch, whitened with peroxide, and softened with low-acid soda ash. Conventional cotton production, meanwhile, uses stronger chemicals, such as bleach, formaldehyde, and sulfur. Patterns in organic cotton are added using water-based inks, instead of standard inks which may include heavy metals and petroleum-based elements.
…and here’s why that’s important
The more natural processes help people with extreme sensitivity to chemicals or with allergies related to any of the elements listed in the previous paragraph. Organic cotton simply doesn’t carry traces of those toxins.
The true impact of choosing this type of cotton is on the water sources, soil, and laborers exposed to chemicals during growth and production. If that is important to you, then your best bet is to purchase organic face masks.
How to know if yours is truly an organic face mask
With so many vendors offering this type of mask, it is hard to know which ones are meeting the certified standard. After all, the fabric for the masks has been cut and sewn, so you cannot read the label on the selvage (outer edge) of the material.
When most people think of organic face masks, they may envision a sandy color without a print. However, organic materials can have different colors, due to more natural processes that lighten or brighten them. Don’t let your first impression convince you that a mask isn’t made from materials that are chemical-free.
You have a few options if you feel strongly about purchasing this type of mask for you and/or members of your family.
DIY an organic face mask
First, you can buy organic cotton and make your own masks. That way, you have no question about what you’re breathing in or what is rubbing on your skin. There are countless patterns available, including several options on this website.
In general, organic cotton costs more than non-organic, due to how it is grown and produced. So don’t be surprised if you end up paying a higher fee per yard of material. However, you are also paying for high quality, so masks made from this type of fabric will be more durable, washable, and tightly-woven than cheaper blends. That should ensure that your masks will be more resistant to wear and tear as they are washed and reused.
With more stores reopening, it is getting easier to get your hands on material at regular stores like JoAnn’s – either online, in person, or via curbside pickup. For more choices, you can buy material online from Fabric.com or another craft and fabric supply retailer.
On the upside, cotton is one of the most recommended materials for masks due to its tight weave, which makes it harder for virus-carrying droplets to penetrate. Two layers prove to be more effective at this mission, without sacrificing breathability.
However, cotton does wrinkle, so be prepared to iron your mask after you wash it unless you like a rumpled look.
Shop from a reputable organic cotton product supplier
Additionally, you can buy masks from a company that was already selling organic cotton items, trusting that they were tapped into those supply chains before demand for face masks became so high.
For example, Naturepedic ordinarily sells organic sleep products, including mattresses and sheets. However, it is taking that expertise – and materials – to make reusable face masks. In keeping with its ethics, the retailer is selling the masks with no profit margin at $49 for six masks.
Likewise, Avocado Green Mattress is also selling masks out of double layers of organic cotton. Theirs are priced at $30 for a set of four.
“America has a shortage of face masks as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, so we are doing our part to answer the call by refocusing a large part of our Cut & Sew Department to the production of face masks,” its site says.
“Avocado organic face masks are GOTS certified finished products — one of the few certified face masks available within the United States…Our organic, washable, and reusable face masks are intended to make wearing a mask accessible, convenient, and environmentally responsible.”
Ask key questions when shopping for an organic face mask
You can also shop for masks on Etsy and other sites, after carefully reading listings and asking vendors questions to ensure they meet your standards.
Margaret Williams, the Wisconsin-based maker of the best-selling Shiitake Creek organic face mask, posted this description when selling more than 2,200 versions of her mask: “The front of the mask is a natural color, organic canvas duck fabric, thick but still breathable. The lining is a 100% organic cotton white sateen fabric. This provides double-layer protection while still being washable and comfortable.”
While she is upfront about her materials, other vendors may not provide as much detail. One of the great features on Etsy is the opportunity to message the craft-makers to ask more questions about what they use.
The specifications listed on each item can be quite detailed, so read through and see what is shared. The more details, the more likely the person is being upfront. Some common words in listings for organic face masks are organic, linen, cotton, eco-friendly, reusable, anti-dust, and breathable. Focus on the source of the materials since the other descriptors are not as relevant.
If you are genuinely concerned about getting true organic cotton, you can ask: where do the makers buy their cotton and how do they know it is certified organic? While it would be possible to fudge the answers, most Etsy artisans are ethical and aware of the transparency of the reviews posted, so they are likely to be honest.
Additional benefits to plain cotton masks
Every type of mask has its pros and cons, even those that are quite plain. While reading reviews of the various masks, a few comments popped up additional ‘pros’ for this 100 percent organic cotton design by Utae at Cozy Mask.
Rather than using flashy colors, she recommends purchasing plain masks, then adding artwork of your own.
“Because our masks come in simple solid colors, kids can use fabric markers to add their own illustrations and patterns to their mask and show off their creativity!” she says.
This three-dimensional organic cotton mask earned a rave review from Amber S. for its simplicity: “My husband wanted a simple mask with no design and not black. The charcoal color is perfect and it fits him great.”
For these reasons, simpler is better. Whatever your reason for choosing an organic face mask – or not – there are several factors to consider before heading out into the marketplace to find a face covering for you and your loved ones.