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The University of Southampton
Fundamental Care

Dr Peter Worsley leads project to create the perfect-fitting face mask

Published: 4 February 2021

Scientists from the University of Southampton and Cardiff University have joined forces, looking to create the perfect fitting mask to protect frontline workers at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. The team is using state-of-the-art computer software and MRI facial scans to precisely determine how face masks interact with different face shapes and sizes. Currently, face masks are typically designed for a white male workforce and can therefore lead to overtightening to compensate for a poor fit, resulting in discomfort and an increased risk of infection.

The multidisciplinary project team will create a series of designs that PPE can be tested against to support the design of new face masks that can accommodate a range of face shapes. The team will also create an app that captures a 3D image of the user’s face and then matches this with the best-fitting face mask from a range of options.

Dr Peter Worsley, Associate Professor in Health Sciences, who is leading the team said: “Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is vital for frontline workers, supporting the safety of individuals who are treating those with COVID-19. These devices may not fit properly and can cause some skin reactions when worn for prolonged periods. This project will provide new design templates for safe PPE devices, ensuring they fit for all individuals and interface safely with their skin.”

A 2017 report from the trade union TUC noted that “most PPE is based on the sizes and characteristics of male populations from certain countries in Europe and the United States”. “As a result, most women, and also many men, experience problems finding suitable and comfortable PPE because they do not conform to this standard male worker model,” it said.

Additionally, a recent large-scale survey in China revealed that 42% of hospital workers reported soft tissue injuries from wearing badly-fitting PPE, including pressure injuries, moisture-associated skin dermatitis and skin tears.

Expertise from the international Medical Devices and Vulnerable Skin Network (MDVSN), led by Southampton, will be used for this project. Dr Worsley explained: “The network works to improve the design of devices that interact with the skin. We are applying this knowledge to improve PPE devices through participant testing and the development of fitting algorithms. Our partners in Cardiff are providing expertise in imaging and modelling to inform PPE designs.” Volunteers will have a three-dimensional (3D) MRI scan taken of their face with and without a mask using scanners at Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre.

The team is working with NHS England and NHS Improvement, industry partners Hybrisan and Additive Instruments Ltd, and the National Police Coordination Centre to support the design principles and engage with end users. The project will run for 18 months and has been awarded over £400,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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