This week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released its first set of guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. People who are fully vaccinated can safely visit other vaccinated people inside without wearing a mask or social distancing. Vaccinated people can also see unvaccinated people without masks or social distancing as long as the unvaccinated person is at low risk for severe disease.
For hundreds of millions of Americans, this is extremely welcome news. Not having to wear a mask in lower-risk scenarios is great news for individual freedom and everyone’s mental health.
However, even after many people are vaccinated, it doesn’t mean that our experience with masks is over. The nature of COVID-19 virus mutation and evolution — and its endemic and airborne nature in modern society — tells us that SARS-CoV-2 will be with us for a very long time, if not forever. After all, H1N1 and its variants are still with us today, 100 years following its appearance in the 1918 pandemic. The novel coronavirus is now much more contagious, with new emerging strains like B.1.1.7 replacing the original as the predominant strain in some locales. It’s also possible that a few mutational generations will result in vaccine escapism for the virus, re-introducing the need for mask mandates until another generation of vaccines can be formulated and administered.
For that reason, protective mask technology requires continued innovation. The best protection possible is also critical for those of us more vulnerable (due to immune disorders and other comorbidities) and front-line healthcare workers.
In late June of 2020, a fledgling Brighton, Colorado startup, UM Systems, initiated a crowdsourced project on Indiegogo and Kickstarter to create the ultimate PPE mask for civilian use. What makes it the ne plus ultra in mask PPE? The company was looking to solve multiple problems with existing solutions:
- Create an airtight seal
- Provide particle filtration at the 0.3-micron level
- Provide the ability to completely inactivate a pathogen by killing it or rendering it harmless
- Provide a mask that is comfortable to wear
- Provide ventilation using a fan and positive air pressure
- Eliminate fog for eyewear users
While some products could provide solutions to some of these issues, none could achieve all of the above. After over $4 million in seed backing, the company has shipped its first version.
The technology behind UVMask
As an original backer, I waited approximately eight months for the product to ship. While this sounds like a very long time, we are talking about a product that had to be rapidly prototyped under unusual market conditions and during a time when production facilities in China have seen their manufacturing capabilities interrupted. That the company was able to achieve this under such accelerated timeframes is really quite remarkable. It’s also expected that since this is a first-generation product and that testing has been much more limited than what a large-scale PPE manufacturer or a technology company can achieve under similar constraints, the first product will be far from perfect.
UM Systems ships two versions of UVMask: The full-blown version ($120) that contains electronic components, and a “Lite” version is essentially the full version’s shell, with removable filters suitable for use in lower-risk environments. The Lite version is being offered exclusively to UVMask backers at a reduced price (approximately $30). I ordered both products for two different face sizes. Fitting to face sizes is addressed with replaceable medical-grade silicone padded inserts that handle the vast majority of face geometries in “S” and “X” sizes. The company is developing additional sizes to address wearers with particular facial features, such as higher nose bridges.
The electronic version is distinct from all other replaceable filter masks that are on the market. In addition to having FFP2 (equivalent to KN95) and FFP3 filters, the mask utilizes 275nm wavelength UV-C LEDs inside the housing air channel to completely inactivate viruses at the DNA level that get past the filters. Additionally, an integrated brushless 20,000 RPM fan reduces CO2 accumulation, increases oxygen level for better breathability and ventilation, and minimizes moisture build-up.
The tech behind UVMask is impressive, but what about actually using it? Let’s start with the construction: It’s made of a hard plastic that comes in three pieces — a front replaceable shell (available in three colors, titanium grey, white, or black), which attaches magnetically to the main assembly where the upper and lower silicone straps are also attached. The main assembly, in turn, attaches to the face pad, which is made from medical-grade silicone rubber and is easily removed for cleaning.
The first thing you notice when you turn it on (using a small button that is recessed inside a rubber flap on the bottom front of the mask) is the brushless fan’s high-pitched whine — it’s prominent, although I didn’t find it overwhelming or annoying. Still, it is very noticeable in indoor environments.
However, this noise is easily forgiven because the positive airflow makes it far easier to breathe with these FFP2 and FFP3 filters inserted than a typical KN95 type respirator. Even here in Florida’s high humidity environment, I have not once seen my glasses fog up during several hours of protracted outdoor use. With the correctly sized silicone inserts, it is quite comfortable to wear despite the considerable weight, and the silicone straps keep it tight and well-supported on your face.
As far as power, the device uses USB-C under a recessed port with a rubber tab in the mask’s front to charge its dual internal 1800mAh (non-removable) Li-Po batteries, but it does not come with a power adapter, only a charging cable. I don’t see this as a significant downside as most people own smartphones and other charging equipment, and it doesn’t require high wattage to charge it — a port on a PC or any 5V USB-A charger with the USB-A to USB-C cable works fine. The LEDs on the top of the mask light up red to indicate charging and light up white when charging is complete. They also turn on when you click on the tiny stud button to turn the mask on and switch between “Pro” and “Econ” modes.
The batteries are designed to have 1,000 full charging cycles before the capacity drops to below 80%. They should be good for a couple of years of daily use, at least, and you will probably get a new next-generation UVMask before the batteries run out.
I would like to see a more prominent button on the mask that I can feel with my fingers to switch it on when the mask is already on my face or hanging from my neck and to toggle between modes, but this is a nitpick. A fully charged battery will get you eight hours of continuous use. If the battery depletes while you’re wearing the mask, the integrated filters will still function as if was the “Lite” version of the product. Note that you will need to use a USB-A to USB-C cable and connection to charge the mask; a USB-C to USB-C cable with a USB PD charger will not work.
Room for improvement, but still an excellent product
First, the mask is considerably larger than what most people are accustomed to wearing, and it is not lightweight by any means — it weighs approximately 9.4 ounces. If you wear this for hours at a time, expect some neck fatigue. The “lite” version without the electronic components is 4.1 ounces and is probably a more realistic solution for lower-risk environments, where you are more likely to wear it for extended periods.
Let’s also get this out of the way: Don’t expect to have extended conversations while wearing the UVMask. In a next-generation product, I would like to see a rudimentary microphone and speaker system because you’ll find your voice to be extremely muffled, and you’ll have to talk considerably louder than normal to get your point across. It almost felt like I was re-enacting “Dark Helmet” in Spaceballs. With the integrated fan’s positive airway pressure, it feels a lot like wearing a CPAP mask. In fact, CPAPs were highly influential in the product’s design.
You can easily remove the silicone inserts and the front shell for end-of-day cleaning with isopropyl alcohol. However, I do find the silicone a bit challenging to put back on the mask, as it has an inner “lip” that needs to be inserted in just the right way along the rim of the mask housing, or it will fall off. It takes some practice to get this right; with wear, it gets easier. But it can still be annoying because if you keep the mask in a bag, the silicone easily pops off. This isn’t an issue when wearing it, only when storing it — UM Systems sells a hard case for the mask if you will be transporting it regularly.
Inserting the filters takes some practice and can be a little bit frustrating. The initial version of the “Lite” masks had UM95 FFP2 filters that fell inside the air channel if you did not align them perfectly — rendering the product useless. UM99 FFP3 filters are more rigid and less flexible than UM95 FFP2 filters because of the larger amount of filter material used, so they did not experience that issue.
The threading that connects the circular filter housings is very short, so it takes some skill in holding the mask chassis steady and above the filter packs to get them secured properly. To address this, UM Systems will now send customers a set of metal washer rings that completely prevent the filters from falling into the air channel, alleviating that problem. However, the washers also make the filter caps harder to screw on. These washers had to be rapidly designed to fix the filter problem after the masks had been manufactured; I expect newer versions of the mask will accommodate the washers as part of the overall design and have longer threads and filter caps that are easier to screw on.
Overall, I feel the straps work fairly well, but they are thinner than I expect for a mask that weighs 9.4oz and twist up fairly easily (although this does not affect the product’s performance, it’s a purely aesthetic issue). I’d like to see a thicker version of the headgear similar to what we see on a CPAP mask of similar weight.
Also, removing the mask for eating and drinking can be problematic as the straps are not of the quick-disconnect type; they are threaded into notches in the front mask shell and secured with camera strap-style clips, so pulling off the upper strap results in the mask hanging very close to your neck on your chest. At 9.4oz, it is heavy — the only other option is to remove the mask when not in use completely. The company does sell an optional velcro strap kit, but I did not get to test these. A magnetic-style quick disconnect on the lower part of the mask would be preferable.
I should add that an upper head and neck strap configuration is the only correct way to install the straps — you do not want to install them sideways (as another reviewer did at the Australian Financial Review and resulted in a negative product evaluation experience) because your ears cannot support the weight of this product. I recommend watching the product videos that UM Systems has provided for proper strap installation and mask fit.
Is the product perfect in its first version? No. But is it worth the money? Yes. In cases where you need to be out in public and in dense, higher-risk areas where you have high confidence that people around you may be infected, UVMask is an excellent solution for staying safe in a post coronavirus world.
You can order the UVMask through UM Systems’ Indiegogo page.