The Face Mask Market—Three Years Later

The years 2020 and 2021 saw an unprecedented rate of demand and investment in face masks and the materials that use them. But, by mid-2022, most schools had lifted their mask mandates and mask usage was no longer dictated in most public areas. While mask use continues—to some degree—on a discretionary basis and remains widespread in most medical facilities, demand has shrunk and the market remains overstocked.

“There will always be some market for industrial masks but nothing like demand during the pandemic,” says Serkan Gogus, commercial director, Mogul Nonwovens. “Before the pandemic a majority of medical and industrial masks were being produced in Asia, particularly China, and during the pandemic there has been significant capacities built in other parts of the world. But as demand has gone down most of these have either been idled, sold or closed so we have to see if some of these capacities will still continue in North America and Europe or if production will switch back to Asia.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Mogul, who was already active in meltblown nonwovens production, expanded its meltblown output with the addition of two lines, which came onstream in 2021 and added another one—its seventh in total—late last year. These lines are reportedly 160 centimeters wide and capable of making fabrics in the 15-100 gsm range and feature electrostatically charged capabilities for N95 and higher efficiency masks as well as high efficiency filtration applications and other industrial applications.

While these investments initially targeted respirators, face masks and other healthcare related applications during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, as demand has waned, Mogul has shifted its focus to other areas for meltblown including spill control, filters and wipes.

Mogul is not alone. According to The Future of Meltblown Nonwovens to 2026, a dedicated study on the market segment published by Smithers in 2021, in 2019 Smithers estimated the global meltblown market at 207,400 metric tons; in 2020 it ballooned to 367,800 metric tons. The main end uses in 2019 were filtration (excluding face masks): 44.1%, sorbents (mainly oil): 16.9%, and insulation (both acoustic and thermal): 13.9%. In 2020, this changed to face masks: 33.1%, other medical: 16%, and filtration: 26.7%. While it has not yet published final figures for 2022, Smithers estimated the market breakdown to be filtration: 42.2%, insulation: 15.4%, sorbents: 15.1%, and face masks: 10%.

Qualitatively, Smithers considered the global meltblown supply and demand to be relatively balanced pre-pandemic, in 2019. “Today, supply is significantly higher than demand,” says report author Phil Mango. “While some investments may be warranted due to government incentives to ‘on-shore’ and/or stockpile ‘strategic’ materials, most are not warranted.”

Berry Global, the world’s largest nonwovens producer, invested significantly in both meltblown production and face mask lines in 2020 and 2021. In addition to installing assets in every world region to meet heightened demand, the company also converted some pilot and/or underutlized assets to support market demand.

A seasoned veteran in meltblown nonwovens production with a strong customer network in the segment, Berry continues to dedicate capacity to the healthcare and face mask markets but has transitioned a decent percentage of this capacity to support demand air filtration and several other markets. While no official announcement has been made, the internal face mask production has likely been idled since Berry no longer has internal requirements dependent on local and national regulations and operating guidelines.

Another major investor of meltblown nonwovens was Alkegen, formerly Lydall, which added two large lines in New Hampshire, with the aid of the Department of Defense Funding and a third in France. A specialist in high performance filtration media, Alkegen also continued to focus on this area for meltblown growth as demand in the face mask category has retreated.

Last year, the company introduced three high efficiency filtration products—one for air, one for liquid, one for molecular applications. “These launches combine Lydall’s well-known filtration and manufacturing expertise with Unifrax’s proven, rapid innovation capabilities,” says Paul Vallis, president of the Filtration & Catalysis Group. “This is the first of many innovations we expect to deliver as our portfolio evolves to meet the continuous demand for ever-higher efficiency and reduced energy consumption.”

Included in this new launch is a new line of meltblown liquid filtration media, LyPore MB, which is designed to meet the most critical application requirements, while providing high filtration efficiency, low-pressure drop and excellent dirt holding capacity. It’s available in polypropylene and PBT, single layer or composite and calendered to meet the most complex liquid filtration challenges. Chosen for such applications as food and beverage and lube oil, incorporating Lypore MB into a filter design can improve filtration efficiency and extend filter life resulting in a higher performing finished filter and lower total cost for the end user.

“In addition to our expanded portfolio of available grades, our talented research and development team routinely customizes LyPore MB to meet specific customer needs,” says Aaron Frost, growth leader.

New line investment in meltblown was also strong at Fitesa. The Brazilian nonwovens producer has been in investment mode since the early days of the pandemic, partnering with Reicofil to install state-of-the-art equipment spanning multiple technologies and targeting the health and hygiene markets, making products for medical gowns, surgical face masks and N95 respirators, diapers and sanitary products. This included new meltblown capacity in Brazil, Italy, Germany and South Carolina.

According to executives, these investments did not solely center on demand for face masks but were part of a longer term strategy to position the company as a long term partner and reliable supplier for the global hygiene and healthcare markets, which includes solutions not just for masks but also for other personal protective equipment. In these markets, demand is stabilizing much higher than pre-pandemic levels thanks to government measures such as the U.S. Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law by President Biden in November 2021 as a part of the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act.

This provision, which is based on U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Rob Portman (R-OH)’s Make PPE in America Act, was expected strengthen efforts to onshore production of PPE in the U.S. by requiring federal agencies to issue long-term contracts for American-made PPE. Reshoring production will ensure American workers, health care professionals, and more have the PPE they need as the economy continues to reopen. Domestic production of PPE supplies also will create American manufacturing jobs and ensure that America is better prepared for the next pandemic.

The provision will require federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, HHS, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to purchase American-made PPE. The bill also requires federal agencies to issue long-term contracts to U.S. manufacturers.

In 2022, U.S.-based PPE specialist 3M stepped up its U.S. production in Nebraska. The company’s respiratory and hearing protection products unit announced it would grow its plant in Valley, NE. 3M is investing approximately $58 million to fund the 80,000 square foot expansion that will create around 50 new jobs at the facility.

“Our colleagues at 3M’s Valley plant have played an important role providing critical supplies to frontline workers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Matt Huset, plant director at 3M Valley. “We’re pleased to announce this investment in our growth in Nebraska which will allow us to further meet demand for personal safety equipment for the U.S.”

The Personal Safety Division is also celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the first U.S. government-approved 3M filtering facepiece respirator (a precursor to what is now known as the N95), and the 3M E-A-R Classic Ear Plug.

“Using technology from our business and the expertise of the medical product development team, we were able to advance product functionality in our smart fiber-based solutions. Having products that are sustainable, renewable, and biocompatible allows for the opportunity to provide environmentally friendly options,” comments Stuart Nixon, VP, Beverage and Casing, Ahlstrom.

The TenderGuard product portfolio consists of protective fabrics applicable for medical use as well. TenderGuard Natural is a wetlaid fabric that can be used as the inner or outer layer of a face mask. It is environmentally friendly, and the hypoallergic inner layer makes it super soft for the wearer. With both layers together, TenderGuard Natural achieves nearly 50% Bacterial Filtration Efficiency, which is remarkable without a filtration layer included.

TenderGuard Smooth consists of bicomponent spunbond fabrics that are made with a proprietary technology that minimizes raised fibers. This creates a smooth surface to help eliminate any skin irritation, which is essential when it comes to a face mask. TenderGuard Smooth is hypoallergenic, so it is gentler on the skin, making it ideal to wear for long durations.

Borealis, one of the world’s leading providers of advanced and circular polyolefin solutions and a European market leader in base chemicals and fertilizers; and the Grabher Group, a leading manufacturer of high-tech textiles, are accelerating plastics circularity in a partnership that safeguards human health while helping minimize waste. The key component of the high-quality, filtrating face masks produced by Grabher in Austria is made of fully recyclable meltblown polypropylene (PP) supplied by Borealis. To further drive circularity, Grabher has initiated a novel collect-and-recycle scheme for used face masks which turns them into new value-added products such as oil absorption fabrics.

The Vorarlberg, Austria-based Grabher Group is a leading expert in nano-air and micro-liquid filtration and designs smart-textile systems for the manufacture of medical and healthcare products, among others.

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Austria were imminent. Grabher acted by becoming the first Austrian company to establish a dedicated face mask assembly facility which included a state-of-the-art meltblown production system for the manufacture of high-quality face masks.

These certified masks, including FFP2 filtration respirators, medical masks, and washable community masks, are marketed by Vprotect, a 100%-owned member of the Grabher Group. One essential component of the Vprotect masks – the filter made of densely spaced micron-sized fibers – is made of meltblown PP supplied by Borealis, a material which is fully recyclable.

“Our partnership with Grabher is the embodiment of EverMinds circular thinking,” claims Vedran Kujundzic, Borealis vice president Commercial Performance Materials. “Using our fully recyclable meltblown PP to manufacture high-quality masks helps protect human health, and finding a way to use them again protects our planet.”



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *