Why Haven't Clear Face Masks Caught On Yet?

Even though protective masks have become more common, transparent versions that make lip-reading possible aren't in widespread use in hospitals, schools, or big-box stores.
Image of woman smiling while wearing mask with transparent plastic over her mouth
Photo: RafiNova

While I was trying to send a package at the post office (RIP?) recently, a postal worker wearing a cloth mask asked me to hand her a highlighter that was out of reach. I didn’t hear what she was saying. She asked two more times before grabbing the highlighter herself, but not first without rolling her eyes and muttering something angrily under her breath.

As a person who is hard of hearing and struggles with communication even in the best of circumstances, I’m not new to experiencing rudeness or annoyance when I mishear people. But since the COVID pandemic started and face masks became the norm in our daily lives, such miscommunications have skyrocketed, making just about every form of human contact into a potential source of anxiety.


One potential solution to these miscommunications—which affect not just the nearly 50 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, but everybody, as cloth masks muffle voices and make understanding more difficult—is to wear masks with clear panels that allow the speaker’s mouth to be visible. Yet even though protective masks have become more common and widespread, it's still rare to see major retailers offering see-through options, and I almost never see them used in public settings. See-through masks also largely aren’t in use in doctors’ offices, hospitals, schools, or other places in which workers communicate with a large swath of the public regularly (such as grocery stores). Why aren’t see-through masks being used and distributed more widely, and what, if anything, might help to change this?

As with many issues of accessibility, it’s not just deaf or hard of hearing people who would benefit from the use of see-through masks. As Michael Stone, senior research fellow in audiology at the University of Manchester told WIRED UK, “All face masks alter the frequency content of the speech signal, which means that every person … will suffer from degraded communication.” Cloth masks muffle the higher frequencies, which is where human speech falls. Plus, covering the mouth region impacts nonverbal cues, which is an enormous part of communication, and another reason see-through masks should be more widely implemented.


“I've noticed people misunderstand me a lot more now,” said Ammie Brod, a musician in Chicago, who has been wearing cloth masks, but is looking into clear ones as a potential workaround for a different problem—cloth masks cause her eyeglasses to fog up and impair her ability to see. “I wonder if maybe more people will start to think more about clear masks when they realize how much they rely partially on lipreading to understand people,” Brod said.

Lack of awareness that such masks are needed has its roots in ableism, as the world we live in wasn’t built with people with disabilities in mind. While dismantling ableism is a much harder feat—and, sadly, almost always falls on the marginalized group to “fix”—there are several companies, entrepreneurs, and crowdsourcing campaigns that have cropped up to help meet the newfound demand for accessible, see-through masks.

One is the ClearMask, which was launched in 2017. It offers full facial visibility and comes in non-medical or medical (FDA-cleared) options. Then there’s Leaf Mask, an FDA-registered, UV-C N99 clear mask from Redcliffe Healthcare, which has raised over $4 million on Indiegogo. (The company is not currently accepting more pre-orders, and says it hopes to start shipping masks in September.) A speech language pathologist designed Rafi Nova’s Smile Mask, a clear mask with adjustable straps that accommodate hearing aids or cochlear implants, which can get caught or ripped out in masks that fit over the ears. Many DIYers on Amazon and Etsy are also offering see-through masks, made from various materials and at wildly differing price points.


Allysa Dittmar, the co-founder and president of ClearMask, who is deaf herself, said that, with the rise of the pandemic, “more and more people have started to realize the importance of seeing facial expressions, visual cues, and lip-reading, and how much we all subconsciously rely on such communication.”

Though we would all benefit from wearing see-through masks, there are some practical drawbacks in functionality when it comes to more people using them—namely cost, design flaws, and limited research on the effectiveness at preventing the spread of COVID (though experts say there isn’t much research on the best cloth masks either). The price of clear masks can feel prohibitive, especially when disposable surgical masks cost less than $1 each, and reusable cloth masks are often between $2 and $6. In comparison, the cheapest Leaf Mask option (the Hepa) is $49, and the Pro version is $199, not including the filters that are needed. The Smile Mask comes in a two-pack that costs $30. The non-medical ClearMask is $67 for a box of 24 (the smallest amount that can be purchased), about $3 for each single-use mask. The medical option is $87 for a box of 24 single-use masks, about $3.60 per mask.

As Dawn Hartman, a member of the online hard of hearing support group, the Say What Club, told VICE: “The [clear mask] I bought on Etsy was over $20 for one mask.” She also said that see-through masks have other limitations. “They’re hotter than cloth masks and they fog up unless you regularly apply some kind of defogger. I use a mixture of dish soap, baby shampoo, and water on mine.” Despite the cost and design issues, Hartman said her frustrations with not being able to communicate outweigh them. “I will still keep wearing mine hoping to see more of them in the future. It's so frustrating for me not to be able to read lips and to miss so much of what is going on in the world around me.”


Monica Gueye, also a member of the Say What Club, echoed Hartman’s sentiments. “I ordered a couple kinds from a local mask group on Facebook,” she told VICE. “Horribly hard to breathe in, hot, with moisture buildup, and I have to wipe off sweat off my mouth, removing the mask every so often to do so, which defeats the purpose. Also, the window was not big enough on most masks.” I experienced some of these limitations firsthand as well. A mask I purchased on Amazon (around $4, and one of the lower priced options) included a plastic mouth covering that quickly fogged up and already has scratches on it, despite limited use.

Compounding the frustration is the fact that clear masks don’t benefit the wearer—they benefit those seeing the wearer’s face. So even though deaf and hard of hearing people are choosing to wear clear masks to raise awareness and visibility, we need many other people to make this choice as well in order to have an impact. Mask wearing is, ultimately, about protecting other people, so we need to extend that sentiment to the types of masks we are wearing in ways that go beyond how many layers they are.

As to see-through masks’ effectiveness in preventing the spread of disease, Nate Favini, a primary care doctor and Medical Lead at Forward healthcare, explained in Prevention magazine: "Masks with plastic windows are almost certainly as safe as—and may actually be safer than—cotton masks, since plastic is much less permeable than cotton." And, as all masks act as a barrier against potentially harmful respiratory droplets, a snug and secure fit is more important than the material used. "Safety depends on how the plastic is sewn into the cotton and whether that connection is tight or allows respiratory droplets to pass through,” Favini said.


Despite these design drawbacks, they are worth overcoming. The CDC currently recommends the use of clear masks for those who communicate regularly with deaf or hard of hearing people, English language learners, and the very young who are learning to read, but doesn’t offer guidance on what kinds of materials make clear masks effective. (This does not include face shields, which are different from clear masks, and which the CDC does not recommend “for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings because of a lack of evidence of their effectiveness for source control.”)

Despite the recommendation, see-through masks are more of an afterthought, not something that CDC or public health officials mention when discussing the importance of masks to the public. (There’s also no mention of clear masks in the CDC’s overview: How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask.) And the public health officials who have been wearing masks in public are by and large not wearing masks with clear panels.

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), an organization that encourages the use of clear masks in all areas of life during this pandemic, points to two other reasons why clear masks aren’t more widespread: an “inability of manufacturers of clear masks to keep up with the demand, and the lack of awareness among businesses and hospitals to ensure clear masks are provided to staff to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people.”


What might help address the issue, Rosenblum says, is for public health departments and officials to “educate hospitals to ensure access is provided to deaf and hard of hearing patients, family members, and hospital doctors and staff.” Medical establishments are a great place to start, and we are seeing some strides in awareness of clear masks (such as the governor of Kentucky’s recent PSA), but we also need school districts and universities, museums, government officials, grocery stores, execs at big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, and others to say "We strongly encourage the use of clear masks." Even better would be if they distributed some themselves to their workers.

Another group trying to help to solve the affordability, design, and effectiveness issues is Cricut, which offers tutorials for clear masks that follow CDC guidelines and can be made with materials that are less than $10. Recently, Cricut also offered free masks to those in need through a partnership with the Hearing Loss Association of America, which is how I found out about them. (I ordered five in August, and paid the shipping costs, but just found out the company ran out of materials and won’t be able to fulfill my shipment.)

A similar DIY attempt to get more see-through masks into the community, called the DHH Face Mask Project, was started by college student Ashley Lawrence. Lawrence initially started a GoFundMe with the goal of distributing the masks for free so that deaf or hard of hearing people could give them to their doctors if they needed medical attention, and said she was “completely overwhelmed” by the response. She’s now struggling to meet the high demand, and is encouraging people to make see-through masks themselves with the help of a how-to tutorial online.


Despite companies, individuals, and organizations trying to fill the consumer gap, NAD’s Rosenblum notes that, “demand continues to outstrip supply.” To that end, NAD “encourages companies that produce clear masks to increase production of their masks and to continue innovating to meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people.”

Of course, clear masks don’t entirely fix the miscommunications and struggles deaf and hard of hearing people face when it comes to communicating not just with doctors, but at grocery stores, banks, restaurants, the post office, and elsewhere. This was a struggle pre-COVID, but now it’s a problem that’s been “vastly compounded,” Rosenblum says.

If weathering a global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have not only a responsibility but a profound capacity to take care of each other. The more people ask for, make, and wear clear masks in public, the more it will catch on and help usher in a change for accessibility that will benefit all of us. So if you haven’t yet, get yourselves, your friends, your co-workers, or your loved ones a see-through mask and help make communication a little easier for everyone.

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