Face masks are an absolute necessity during the coronavirus pandemic. They help protect the wearer and, more importantly, the people around them. Yet, they also cover the majority of people’s faces, and it can be dull to wear a generic surgical mask or even the same cloth mask over and over again. Some people have started to get creative with face masks, which has led to some interesting, although scientifically dubious, results.
In recent months, a metalsmith in Turkey has started making solid silver and gold face masks as “timeless” items. As explained by the Hürriyet Daily News, Sabri Demirci said he heard that silver and gold had anti-bacterial properties, which inspired him to make face masks made of these precious metals. This sounded absurd, so we decided to get in touch with Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of California San Francisco, so he could tell us whether these masks would even be effective.
What Are Silver and Gold Face Masks Like?
First, let’s talk about the masks. Per the Hürriyet Daily News, Demirci started to produce the masks in June after reopening his shop in Istanbul. The metalsmith told the outlet that his silver masks are pure 999-carat and don’t contain any copper or nickel coating. They weigh less than a tenth of a pound (20 grams) and cost about $US200 ($260). The gold masks, on the other hand, also weigh less than a tenth of a pound (25 grams) and cost about $US2,700 ($3,514).
The outlet reported that Demirci makes about 150 to 200 precious metal masks per week. When the pandemic is over, the metalsmith maintains that the “collectible” items can be saved as souvenirs.
This Isn’t the First Time People Have Looked at Metals During the Pandemic
Dr. Chin-Hong said the idea of gold and silver masks reminded him of the interest in copper a few months ago when people started making wands, amulets, and face masks out of the metal. Copper and other heavy metals do have antimicrobial properties, Dr. Chin-Hong said. In the case of copper, studies in the early days of the pandemic showed that the coronavirus lived on surfaces like stainless steel for days, he said, but that it only lived on copper for a few hours. Additionally, Dr. Chin-Hong said that the anti-microbial effect in copper is not immediate, and it does take some time before it starts working.
Nonetheless, scientists now know that surfaces are probably less important in covid-19 transmission, Dr. Chin-Hong said. (The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has said that touching surfaces is not thought to be the main way the disease spreads).
The Big Q: Do Silver and Gold Face Masks Even Work?
The CDC recommends all Americans wear face masks to help prevent the spread of covid-19. Covid-19 spreads mainly from person to person via respiratory droplets, which are produced when people cough, sneeze, shout, talk, or sing. Face masks help prevent your respiratory droplets from reaching others. Now to the big question, would these solid gold and silver masks even work? Dr. Chin-Hong said maybe, but that it’s hard to know without testing.
“There’s no scientific evidence that [they work]. I’m just worried that it may be potentially increasing the risk on one extreme, which is you’re manipulating your face more because it’s not really designed to breathe through easily, [although] it depends on how they make it… I’d be nervous about that aspect,” he said.
If the Masks Are Solid, People Wouldn’t Be Able to Breathe Properly
If the masks are completely solid, Dr. Chin-Hong said, people who wear them wouldn’t be able to breathe properly. Personally speaking, I generally use cloth masks for going out to the store or other activities but use surgical masks at the gym because I can breathe easier with them. Even with that routine, though, I sometimes feel stuffy in both masks and have to take them off for a few seconds to take a good long breath before putting them back on. I can’t imagine wearing a solid silver or gold mask through which air will not pass.
There Are Also Other Risks of Using Masks With Metals
In addition, there are other risks of using masks with metals. At the beginning of December, the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety communication about using face masks with metal during MRI exams. The guidance came after the agency was informed that a patient had burned their face from the metal in a face mask in an MRI exam. The agency recommends that patients who go in for an MRI do not wear masks containing “metal parts, like a bendable nose piece or staples on the headband, nanoparticles, or antimicrobial coating that may contain metal.”
Take a Cue from Lady Gaga
Does this mean that we can’t use metals in face masks? No. Dr. Chin-Hong said people can use these metals, but as an accessory to adorn masks and not as the primary material to ward off respiratory droplets. He gave Lady Gaga as an example, who created a splash at the MTV Video Music Awards in August for her choice of masks, which covered her nose and mouth and were effective as well as fashionable. But on the flip side, you don’t want to wear a mask like Lana Del Rey did, referencing the singer’s shiny mesh mask, Dr. Chin-Hong said.
“It looks interesting, but you don’t need to be a smart virus to get through that mesh. You could be the dumbest virus and it would be easy to get through that mesh,” he told Billboard in October.
Overall, Choose a Comfortable Mask
In the end, Dr. Chin-Hong said that at a certain point, the material you have on becomes less important. Instead, you need to have a mask that you can wear for a long period of time without manipulating your face, which is why fit and comfort trump everything else. Although cloth seems simple, high-quality cloth masks can do the trick and trap droplets going outwards from people infected with the virus and keep someone who is out and about from getting it, he said. Additionally, given that there are so many different types of cloth masks out there, people have the possibility to try different ones and figure out which one works best for them.
Per the CDC, it’s important to choose masks that have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; fit snugly on the sides of your face and don’t have gaps; and completely cover your nose and mouth. If you’re looking for more tips, the CDC has a great mask guidelines page. And if you’re wondering, not a single recommendation includes gaudy masks made of solid gold.