History of the Face Mask: From 6th Century BC to 2021

History of the Face Mask:
From 6th Century BC to 2021

Most of us didn’t envision ourselves wearing, or being asked to wear, face masks every day. 

After nearly 12 months of coping with the pandemic, observing someone without a face mask has become unusual. And in many cases, also unwelcome. 

Face masks and their role in maintaining public health aren’t new.  

Masks & Early Civilizations 

Face masks, in the broadest sense, have been around for thousands of years. Early masks, which were likely made of natural materials and cloth, likely decomposed at a far quicker rate than other relics of the past, like weapons, pottery, and utensils.   

It is likely we'll never know the exact period during which masks made their original appearance.  

What we do know, however, is that face masks were found in southwestern Asian society as early as 6th century BP. Evidence of use was found on Persian tomb doors, which depicted individuals donning face masks of some sort.  

Despite the implications of the ancient tomb art, the exact purpose of masks was not readily apparent. We may have some insights into how mask use has evolved in Asian cultures.   

During his travels along the Silk Road, Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) recorded seeing Yuan Dynasty servants use silk masks to cover their faces. These masks, which likely resemble modern masks, were purportedly used to help prevent servants from breathing on food and thus changing the food's taste.  

Today, we don't often think about the relationship between our respiratory particles and the flavor of our food, and that doesn't mean our ancestors weren't on to something.  Even in ancient times, those early concerns speak to the idea that our breath can impact those around us.  

Masks & Modern Medicine 

Even today, as we grapple with COVID19, the word “plague” often conjures up images of a scary doctor wearing a beak-like mask and a long dark coat. It’s hard to separate that image from tragedy, and in the middle ages, these masks represented a step in the right direction—or at least in theory.   

Those masks were filled with herbs and spices and believed to protect the wearer from miasma, or the poisonous air that physicians thought caused the plague.  

Today we know that it is germs, not poison air, that transmits diseases. Nonetheless, those early efforts to avoid illness by covering an individual's eyes, nose, and mouth were rooted in some modern medical truths.  

By the time we entered the 1800s, doctors and scientists were making marked advancements in their understanding of illness. One of particular importance is the concept of antisepsis by Joseph Lister (1872 - 1912) and subsequent studies by Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895), a microbiologist who reportedly proved the presence of bacteria in the air.   

Similarly, Carl Friedrich Flugge (1847 - 1923) published work on droplet infections responsible for ailments like tuberculosis.  

During this time, experts also made noteworthy advances in their understanding of masks and how masks block small particles, such as dust. In the medical field, one such advancement was made by Joann von Mikulics Radecki (1850 - 1905), who introduced gauze masks into the medical community (1850 - 1905). 

By the 1910s, it was clear that the adoption of masks was a timely savior. This time signaled the start of the first recorded pandemic on US soil—the Spanish Flu, an influenza pandemic between 1918 and 1919.   

As it raged across the world, mask-use became a vital tool for flu prevention, with some states even implementing ordinances similar to those we encounter today. Thanks to those masks, experts believe that masks also helped reduce the spread of deadly diseases, including the Spanish flu and other ailments like scarlet fever and Diphtheria.  

Masks Today 

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, two things became clear: masks were effective at stopping particles, both visible and invisible, from entering the respiratory system, and that multiple layers improved effectiveness.  

Up until the early 2000s, many of us wouldn’t think of wearing a mask in public. For East Asian societies, masks became a vital tool in reducing illness during the 2003 SARS epidemic (2003). After that point, mask use in areas like China and Singapore became common as a tool for decreasing illness and as a sign of respect. People in highly populated Asian cities also began donning them to stave off the harmful effects of environmental pollution from cars or other irritants in their air. 

wearing masks is vital for disease prevention

Today, citizens worldwide, including in the United States, are wearing masks to do what they have always done—protect us from disease. 

Thanks to the continuous evolution of science and industry, we now have various masks that have been created to protect many settings, some better than others. There remains a great deal of misinformation and a lot of marketing-speak.  N95 masks, for instance, are advertised to provide ultimate protection to frontline workers and medical professionals.    

Like surgical masks, other masks supposedly offer everyday users enhanced protection by limiting the number of particles they breathe in or out. Cloth masks are another story. Additional layers can help. 

However, the outer surfaces, if plain cotton or fabric, can attract lingering bugs. And if the interior layers have silver nanoparticles, these can be harmful to a person and the environment. They can fleck off, get into the body through the skin or breathing, or get in our waterways that become polluted through discarded masks.  

Which mask is best for me?  

With so many masks available, it’s hard to figure out which one is best. N95 masks are reported to provide the highest level of protection and proven to be safe masks. They continue to be in limited supply.  

Reports also show more frequently about inferior products that are not efficacious. The N95s may not be practical in all settings in addition to being harder to breathe through—a health hazard itself. Further, if one doesn’t wear their mask consistently, that alone can result in compromised effectiveness. 

Science has proven that masks composed of multiple layers offer more protection than single layer masks. With new, highly contagious strains making their way into communities across the globe, those extra layers can make a world of difference.  

We are now seeing outreaches from major media, health, and government sources encouraging “double masking.” Many question this viability, although, at face value, more coverage to some seems better. Perception, as the saying goes, is reality. 

Still, there are many multi-layer masks available, and the next determining factor in your search for the right one should be the materials that make up the mask.   

Cotton can be a reliable material if consistently washed.;  We admit to a bias. Our TRU47 masks take protection one step further. Relying on the reported antiviral and antibacterial properties of silver and copper, some of our styles also include as an interior layer.  

It is reported that silver effectively inhibits the growth of irritants, bacteria, and viruses. It will also help create a more “face-friendly” mask option.  Silver is also self-disinfecting, which can help prevent painful or embarrassing conditions of “maskne,” a newly pervasive problem among mask wearers. 

Maskne occurs after constant wear of masks that are tight or self-containing so no air can circulate. Moisture can accrue, which can be a fertile ground for encouraging bacterial growth—also known in many instances as acne. Check out our collection of silver masks to help prevent maskne.