Face masks fit men better than women, MIT sensors confirm
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A sensor has been developed that can detect the fit of a face mask in a bid to help lower the transmission of Covid-19 and other airborne diseases.
Developed by MIT researchers, the sensor measures physical contact between the mask and the wearer’s face and can be applied to any kind of mask.
Using this sensor, the researchers analysed the fit of surgical masks on male and female subjects, and found that overall, the masks fit women’s faces much less closely than they fit men’s faces.
“What we realized by analysing our collected data from the individuals in the study was that the masks that we use in daily life are not very suitable for female participants,” said Canan Dagdeviren, corresponding author of the study.
The researchers hope that their sensor will help people to find masks that fit them better, and that designers could use it to create masks that fit a wider variety of face shapes and sizes.
The sensor can also be used to monitor vital signs such as breathing rate and temperature, as well as environmental conditions such as humidity.
The researchers began working on this project before mask-wearing became common during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their original intention was to use sensors embedded in masks to measure the effectiveness of mask-wearing in areas with high levels of air pollution. However, once the pandemic started, they realised that such a sensor could have more widespread applications.
Currently, the only way to measure mask fit is to use a machine called a mask fit tester, which evaluates the fit by comparing air particle concentrations inside and outside of the face mask.
However, this type of machine is only available in specialised facilities such as hospitals, which use them to evaluate mask fit for healthcare workers.
The MIT team wanted to create a more user-friendly, portable device to measure mask fit.
“In this project, we wanted to monitor both biological and environmental conditions simultaneously, such as breathing pattern, skin temperature, human activities, temperature and humidity inside the face mask, and the position of the mask, including whether people are wearing it properly or not,” said Jin-Hoon Kim, an MIT postdoc and lead author of the paper, “We also wanted to check the fit quality.”
To integrate their sensors into face masks, the researchers created a device that they call a conformable multimodal sensor face mask (cMaSK). Sensors that measure a variety of parameters are embedded in a flexible polymer frame that can be reversibly attached to the inside of any mask, around the edges.
To measure fit, the cMaSK has 17 sensors around the edge of the mask that measure capacitance, which can be used to determine whether the mask is touching the skin at each of those locations.
The cMaSK interface also has sensors that measure temperature, humidity, and air pressure, which can detect activities such as speaking and coughing.
An accelerometer within the device can reveal if the wearer is moving around. All of the sensors are embedded into a biocompatible polymer called polyimide, which is used in medical implants such as stents.
The researchers tested the cMaSK interface in a group of five men and five women in various scenarios and used the collected data to create a machine-learning algorithm to calculate mask fit quality for each subject in the study.
These measurements revealed that mask fit was significantly worse for women than men, due to gender-related differences in face shape and size. However, the fit for women could be improved slightly by wearing smaller surgical masks. The researchers also found that mask fit quality was low for one of the male subjects who had a beard, which created gaps between the mask and the skin.
The researchers hope that their findings will encourage mask manufacturers to design masks that fit a variety of face shapes and sizes, especially women’s faces.
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