Under Armour’s sportsmask. Should you order it?

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

As WHO and CDC have started recommending the use of masks, many people have started using them. However, for sports and especially for contact sports, the standard masks are relatively inconvenient as they have not been designed for the conditions encountered in sports, neither designed to facilitate fast breathing.

On June 11, Under Armour released a $30 sports mask with anti-microbial treatment that sold out within an hour! Of course, Under Armour plans to make many more and has promised to improve the design based on customer recommendations. It has also announced that it will make the mask available in many different colors and expand the availability in many countries around the world. Under Armour allows customers to preorder the mask which will be ship some time by August 17.

However, before you order this mask, here are some important facts to help you take an informed decision.

When it comes to covid-19, Under Armour’s website is very careful on the statements. In the main page, it writes: “PROTX2 has been shown in laboratory tests to destroy COVID-19, and is being reviewed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to confirm the efficacy of the substance as it is applied to the UA SPORTSMASK. Under Armour also has a patent pending on its design and construction of the mask.” However, on the selling page, the information is presented differently: Under a `Product DNA’ bullet list, Under Armour simply mentions “Anti-microbial treatment on the inside layer to help keep mask fresh” and “3-layer system meets WHO recommendation for fabric mask” with the added statement “Non-medical & non-surgical mask, does not protect against viruses”.

It is already clear that if you plan to buy this mask for protection against covid-19, your plan is not going to work. But just in case, here are two statements from medical experts: Dr. John Torres, medical correspondent for NBC News, said “my guess is that [the Under Armour face mask] is as good, but probably not much better, than most triple-layer cloth masks.” Dr. Derek Chu, a clinical scholar of medicine at McMaster University, has also stated to TODAY that “the most effective masks are surgical masks or cotton masks with 12 to 16 layers of fabric.”

Although we have presented the answer to the question we asked, it is worthwhile to understand deeper where the antimicrobial claim comes from. This will reveal some additional issues which you may never have thought of. And they go beyond this mask.

Gyms smell badly. This is a fact that everyone can attest to. In addition, everyone knows the underlying reason: sweat. However, sweat is mostly odorless! Hence, it is not the complete answer. Our body is full of microbes which feed on certain oily compounds in our sweat; this results in the creation of the odors. The final piece of information is our clothes. They absorb the sweat and became a natural breeding habitat for the microbes. Cotton is hydrophilic (water loving); it absorbs the sweat and, if left wet, it can can help bacteria, fungi and mildew thrive. But cotton is actually the good `guy’ in this story. It can be dried and washed and the bacteria will be gone. On the other hand, modern athletic apparel is mostly made of polyester or similar materials which are hydrophobic (water fearing). This means that they repel the water which then evaporates fast. This is why we get a dry feeling. However, these materials are oleophilic (oil loving). The oily compounds from the sweat are absorbed by the clothes and can persist for a very long time since they bind with the material very strongly. Multiple washes are often not enough to remove them and the bacteria find the optimal breeding environment.

Switching to cotton apparel (if not for all, at least for many products) would be a healthier and environmentally friendlier choice. Unfortunately, sports manufacturers exacerbate the problem by stressing to buyers the `dry feeling’ and omitting any hazards, thus selling cheap products at a hefty price. To resolve the odor problem, some manufacturers are turning to PROTX2. (A simple search on Amazon, for example, will show to you some such products.) When added to clothes, PROTX2 inhibits the breeding of the microbes. As seen in the announcement of the mask, this substance is behind Under Armour’s antimicrobial claim.

PROTX2 is a pesticide trademarked by IFTNA Inc. According to the official information PROTX2 is “zinc, zinc pyrithione”. In Under Armour announcement we read that “… PROTX2™, a non-metal anti-microbial technology which inhibits growth of bacteria on the mask.” But zinc is a metal and zinc pyrithione is a coordination complex of zinc.

And PROTX2 is not technology; it is a not-very innocent pesticide. First of all here is some environmental hazards: “This pesticide is toxic to fish. Do not discharge effluent containing this product into lakes, ponds, streams, estuaries, oceans or other waters…” Then, here is some precautionary statements: “Corrosive. Causes irreversible eye damage. May be fatal if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed through skin or inhaled. Do not get in eyes, on skin or on clothing. Do not breathe dust. Users must wear protective eyewear (goggles, safety glasses, or face shield), long sleeved shirt and long pants, socks, chemical resistant gloves and chemical resistant footwear… Remove and wash contaminated clothing and wash clothing before reuse.”

If zinc pyrithione is necessary for medical uses, then we should use it. But we should let the medical community decide for it, not manufacturing corporations. Should we really buy products laced with PROTX2 when not being a necessity? Official precautionary statements direct us to wash contaminated clothes to remove PROTX2 and yet we are willing to pay corporations for such products? Small amounts of the chemical will certainly diffuse to our body. Even if we assume that these products are produced with our safety in mind and absolutely no leaking occurs, eventually all of them will be thrown to the trash and end up as microplastics. Rain will wash away the pesticide to the rivers, lakes and oceans. Not only fish are in danger but all animals and, in particular, us. We drink this water.

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