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When it comes to wearing a mask, be more of a Spider-Man than a Batman

A public health expert judges the best superhero mask practices

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As masks become increasingly commonplace in public spaces in America — not just a wise precaution, but in many cases a legal requirement to keep the COVID-19 pandemic from getting worse — it’s natural to wonder how a certain set of public figures who normally wear masks would be faring. Would Batman’s mask help him cut down on the transmission of germs? What about Spider-Man, whose whole face is covered?

Superheroes used to wear masks to protect their civilian identities, but even as more heroes abandon the idea of secret identities, they tend to keep the masks, which are part of their stereotypical superhero image. (And their familiar iconography and branding.) But which superheroes could benefit from a pandemic redesign?

To assess how effective superheroes’ masks would be against the novel coronavirus, Polygon spoke with public health expert Shan Soe-Lin. Working on a scale from zero to 10, with zero being no protection at all, and 10 being extremely protected, we’ve ranked superheroes by just how well they’re practicing public safety.

Superman Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

0: No mask (Superman, Wonder Woman)

First off, there are the superheroes who don’t wear a mask at all. “Superman probably gets an F on mask-wearing,” Soe-Lin says. As for what they ought to strive for: “An ideal mask is one that comes up pretty high under your eyes and thoroughly covers your nose and your chin, and has secure ear loops without too much gaping on any of the sides of the mask. That would be the gold-standard mask, which I think might be Iron Man.”

batman & robin - chris o’donnell and george clooney Photo: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

1: Masks that cover the eyes (Robin, Green Lantern)

A typical domino mask won’t offer much protection against disease, since the mask can’t actually cover the eyes. Even eyeglasses would offer more protection, in that respect — Clark Kent is slightly better protected against germs than Superman would be.

If a mask also covers the eyes, however, that’s a different story. “Your eyes, through your tear ducts, are still kind of connected to your nose, so rubbing your eye is still a transmission pathway,” Soe-Lin explains. “Having goggles would be better than having nothing, but probably orders of magnitude less than having an actual mask.”

That said, only covering your eyes still isn’t ideal: “It helps some,” Soe-Lin says, “but the major entryways are still your nose and your mouth.”

captain america: the first avenger Image: Marvel Studios

3: Masks that cover the top half of the face (Batman, Captain America)

Though Batman and Captain America’s masks cover more surface area, they don’t actually cover the nostrils, which ultimately makes them less protective. “Maybe wearing that kind of mask would prevent you from rubbing your eyes, which might confer some small percentage of protection, so maybe it’s, say, 5% better than not wearing anything,” says Soe-Lin. “But if you’re gonna put anything over your face, you might as well put something that’s pretty thorough.”

That’s still no excuse to leave the nose unprotected. Citing an Italian sign from social media posts that said wearing a mask that doesn’t cover your nose is like wearing underwear that doesn’t cover your genitals, Soe-Lin says covering your mouth is better than nothing, and better than goggles alone, but still not enough. “Your nose is the most vulnerable part of your entire body, because that’s where the receptors are that the virus is using to enter,” she says. “So [wearing a mask under your nose] is defeating at least half the purpose of the mask, if not all of it.”

Elektra Photo: Netflix

5-9: Masks that cover the nose and mouth (Elektra, Vigilante)

Covering both the nose and mouth is the ideal, but exactly how effective such masks are depends on what they’re made of. “A spandex mouth-nose mask might be a five,” Soe-Lin says. “A double-layered cotton mask would be a nine.”

Truly effective masks, Soe-Lin explains, would require at least two layers of high-weave cotton. A layer of flannel, or even chiffon or silk in between would help up the filtration rate.

As for open mouth-nose masks like Bane’s, they’re unfortunately a no-go. Though Bane’s mask provides him with an anesthetic, the vents in itare, according to Soe-Lin, usually solely for the wearer’s comfort. “Masks can get wet if you’re just re-breathing your own somewhat moist air all the time, so that’s what it’s for, is to decrease humidity for you. But those vents actually let air out.” As a result, the mask won’t actually prevent the spread of germs via the wearer’s breath.

Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Far From Home Photo: Jay Maidment/Sony Pictures

10: Mask that cover the entire head (Spider-Man, Deadpool, Iron Man)

Though Spider-Man’s suit provides full head coverage, it would also have to be made of a sufficiently protective fabric to be useful for preventing coronavirus. The bigger problem, however, is how safe the process of taking the suit off is. “When you’re wearing [personal protective equipment], there’s a whole order to which you have to put it on and take it off, to be very, very careful that in the middle of disrobing, you don’t accidentally touch your face with a very contaminated surface,” Soe-Lin explains. “I would say a full Spider-Man suit is a little overkill for the average person, and he probably would need help to take his suit off if he’d been exposed.”

That said, Iron Man is probably the safest superhero of them all. Not only is his face entirely covered, but his suit, which can move on its own, isn’t as difficult as Spider-Man’s to take off. “Iron Man probably gets a triple-A for extreme protection,” Soe-Lin says. “The Iron Man suit, if you could pick one thing, would probably be the best.”

For a real-life equivalent, Soe-Lin cited CAPRs as the best possible option for disease prevention. “It’s an air purifier for your whole head, basically. If you didn’t feel like a total fool, I actually would probably wear that when I go to the grocery store.”

What we’ve learned

Unfortunately, supervillains, who more often wear masks that cover the entire face (Deathstroke, Black Mask) may be safer than their superhero counterparts. “[Masks] hide all of your expressions,” Soe-Lin says, addressing how the stereotypical image of a supervillain might disincentivize people from wearing masks. “That’s the thing that makes it really hard sometimes, and somewhat dehumanizing to wear them. I wonder if that’s where some of the resistance is coming from against wearing masks. That’s why bank robbers wear them. There’s a reason why real-life bad guys tend to wear masks.”

Now, however, it may be time for superheroes to mask up. And, according to Soe-Lin, maybe they should get rid of their capes, too — and not just because, as The Incredibles’ Edna Mode pointed out, they tend to get caught on things. “They’re not really hygienic in today’s environment,” Soe-Lin says. “If you’re in a crowded space, and you’re dragging this giant piece of cloth around you that’s touching benches, dragging on the floor, it’s probably not what you want.”

Heroes do have one advantage in maintaining safety standards during a pandemic, though: — “They do have very good social distancing when they’re flying,” Soe-Lin says.

For us civilians, the best, most practical mask option will be something like the masks worn by Elektra or Vigilante: cloth masks (specifically ones made of multilayered, high density material) that go over the nose and mouth. For once, Superman, Batman, and Captain America aren’t the best examples to follow. The very safest option, meanwhile, remains Iron Man. “He’s really taking it to the next level,” Soe-Lin said. “Maybe he’s an 11, actually.”


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