Etsy sellers have been a top source for stylish masks since the start of the pandemic — but some of them, it turns out, are barely masks at all.
Sellers have been marketing masks made out of mesh, lace, and other materials with visible holes in them. The masks are often marketed for their fashion (some have butterflies or rhinestones on them) and advertised as being “breathable.” Reviewers sometimes cite them as a more comfortable way to comply with mask mandates.
They’re also unlikely to be very effective at protecting against the spread of COVID-19. If holes in a fabric are big enough that you can see them, “then obviously virus particles can get through, so it provides very little protection,” said Amy Price, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab who has been studying mask materials and contributed to the World Health Organization’s advice on the use of masks to protect against COVID-19.
The Verge saw at least a dozen sellers offering mesh or lace masks with holes in them on the first page of Etsy listings for “mesh mask.” Many of those sellers have multiple listings.
Etsy is “not responsible” for determining the efficacy of masks listed on its platform, and sellers are not allowed to make medical or health claims, an Etsy spokesperson told The Verge. “We are committed to keeping our community safe and work to actively review and remove items that violate our policies,” the spokesperson said. At least one mesh mask listing that made medical and legal claims, highlighted in a viral tweet, has been pulled.
While it’s not clear that mesh mask sales are particularly widespread on Etsy, mask sales on Etsy have been huge. More than 12 million face masks were sold on Etsy in April alone, totaling around $133 million in sales. Etsy has continued to promote face mask sales in the months since. When you pull up the site for the first time, a face mask category is one of the first things recommended. At least one thinner “breathable” mask appears on the first page of listings.
One buyer wrote a review saying a mesh mask was “PERFECT” for someone who hates wearing a mask. “I love it because no one can say SH%T to me now, for I have my mask on. LOL.” Another wrote, “Absolutely love this mask I wear it where there’s mask mandates and am totally able to breathe and haven’t been stopped or questioned!”
The seller of those masks, Stinnys, offers at least seven visibly sheer mask models. Stinnys told The Verge its masks are meant for festivals like Coachella and Burning Man and that they’ve been offered since before the pandemic. The listings say the masks are “NOT intended for Covid use.”
“Most customers are wearing these over the disposables or N 95,” the company wrote in a message to The Verge. “Those that don’t are doing what they wish at THEIR free will.”
Many of the mesh and lace masks are marketed for their style, and some listings specifically call out that they are not designed to medical standards. One listing vaguely states, “These are SHEER Masks! They are not intended for extra protection.”
Etsy also displays a warning on search results and product pages for face masks, saying, “Items sold on Etsy, such as masks and hand sanitizers, aren’t medical-grade. Etsy sellers cannot make medical or health claims.” Some sellers have been able to avoid this warning message, though, by labeling their product a “face cover,” rather than a “face mask.”
A mesh mask “would be better than no mask at all,” but it’d be better if the masks had two or three layers to them, said Manhar Dhanak, chair of the Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering at Florida Atlantic University, who worked on a recent study simulating the effectiveness of different face mask materials. Layers, like filters or even paper towels, can help to absorb droplets expelled from your mouth that might be carrying the virus, Dhanak said.
Countries that mandated masks and social distancing early on in the pandemic have seen lower rates of COVID-19 spread, Price said, but there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done on the effectiveness of “community masks” like those people are making at home. “The mask need is probably not going to go away,” Price said. “If all this research had been done the last time we had a pandemic, then we would be better equipped today.”