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- Price $13.00 on tombihn.com (or $6.50 to give away)
- Material 65% polyester / 35% cotton blend fabric
On my first few trips to Japan more than seven years ago, one of the aspects that interests me the most about the Japanese society was that everyone was wearing these white surgical masks. Now, after living in Japan for the past five years, I've pretty much integrated as a mask-wearing member of Japanese society.
For this review of the TOM BIHN Face Mask, I thought it might be interesting to start with a little Japan face mask history lesson.
Face Mask History in Japan
The images and history of the face mask in Japan was derived from page 294 and 295 of the book 80 Years of Tokyo Medical Supplies Whole Sale Industry (東京医療用品卸業界八十年のあゆみ) that was not for public sale.
The face masks were created during the Taisho Era (30 July 1912 to 25 December 1926) of Japan where they were called “factory masks”. It was called that because it was invented as dust shields to be used in factories.
Masks at that time had a brass wire mesh at the core for shape and a cloth that acts as a filter. As with any first versions of any products, durability issues, like rusting caused by your breath, were one of the many problems.
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In was in 1919 (8th year of the Taisho Era), that the general public started taking notice of the mask due to the influenza pandemic. This led to a demand boom which settled down slowly until the Great Kanto Earthquake happened, which caused the next boom.
During the time, a company called Uchiyama Take Shoten (内山武商店) trademarked the first mask made for the general public, the Kotobuki Mask (壽マスク; “Kotobuki” stands for longevity.), which begun a generation of mask-wearing.
The next innovation came in the form of the Obishi Mask (オービシマスク) which replaced the wire mesh into celluloid. The filter, which was initially using black satin was also upgraded to use velveteen or leather.
In 1934 at the start of the Showa era, the flu struck again and the demand of masks surged, and ever since, the cycle repeats during a pandemic as evident in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
As the mask's design continue to evolve, frameless fabrics and the use of gauze were gradually introduced and settled at its current design at about 1948. In recent years, there are also many 3D shape masks that fit the contour of the face in order to reduce the inflow of air around the mask.
Now that you know how the face mask came to be, let's look at TOM BIHN's version.
The TOM BIHN Face Mask
TOM BIHN is one of the most respectable names within the one bag travel community with their durable backpacks, like the TOM BIHN Synapse 25, gaining a cult following. While they are the trailblazers for travel backpacks, this is their first attempt at a face mask.
With the current pandemic spreading fears around the world, non-mask manufacturers have stepped up to do their part to supplement the shortage of masks. For example, NE-based Artifact have started crafting reusable twill face masks.
A similar trend has also emerged in Japan. SHARP, an electronics company, has started mass producing masks for the Japanese population. Even a brassiere company has contributed their own version of the face mask.
One of the unique features of TOM BIHN that puts the brand above the rest is the in-house team of artisans who manufactures the products on site. It seems only natural that they would make use of their talented team to help the cause.
Also, TOM BIHN's goal of this project is to create as many as possible, in as short a time as possible, at as accessible a cost as possible. In order to do so, certain compromises have been made I'll be highlighting some of the compromises they made to achieve this goal in this review.
Cloth Mask vs Medical Face Masks
Most masks that are created ad-hoc during the current pandemic are reusable cloth masks and do not adhere to any medical standard.
There are essentially four types of face masks. The cloth mask, the surgical mask, the N95 respirator and a surgical N95 respirator.
Unlike the other three, the cloth mask actually does not provide any filtration. The main purpose is to prevent the wearer from expelling large particles into the environment. So technically speaking, the cloth mask protects others rather than offer you protection.
One thing it does do is to prevent you from touching your face, something which increases the chance of catching the virus.
That said, surgical masks or N-95 respirator should be reserved from medical professionals as they are the ones in need of it the most. Wearing a cloth mask is definitely better than wearing nothing at all.
With the current state of the world, having a mask is a luxury in itself, and looking good in one is not the highest priority. With that in mind, I'll be reviewing the mask just as I would any other product so that you can have all the information you need to make a decision.
At the time of the review, the mask comes in four colors, black, baby blue, navy, and grey. They did say that more colors will be coming soon and I did spot a burgundy color in the product images, so that might be one to look forward to.
Unlike the Airinum Mask, the mask comes in just one size. TOM BIHN has stated that this is by design as they had chosen to streamline their manufacturing process to produce as many as possible.
It depends on the size of your face, but on mine, I found it a little too small. While it was able to cover my nose and mouth well, It was not able to completely cover my jaw like most mask would. However, it is not too small that it can't be worn.
Based on the feedback from a few users and me as well, TOM BIHN has decided to sell a large version. The large version is available in brown and for preorders at the time of this edit.
The shape is very typical of a face mask and it doesn't really stand out. Apart from the nose bridge slot, that is. On the nose bridge, there is a fabric sewn on as a slot to put in a twisty tie to conform it to your nose. While the fabric itself doesn't attract too much attention, it's the white threading makes you notice it.
While the mask is designed so that you can wear it with the nose bridge slot facing in or out, the white threading is still visible with it facing in. I usually wear it facing out since the white threading without the context of the nose bridge slot fabric looks out of place.
Another nitpick I have is that if you look closely, you'll notice that the ear loops are of a bluish tint compared to the mask fabric.
The materials used in their backpacks is one of the things TOM BIHN is most well known for. Their depth of knowledge and handling of materials is often what sets them apart.
As much as I would like to see a Ballistic Nylon face mask, the TOM BIHN Face Mask doesn't use any of their existing materials.
The mask material uses two layers of 65% polyester and 35% cotton blend. A blend between polyester and cotton is often use to fine tune the balance between durability and comfort.
Before I begin, considering the price and the amount of time they took from idea to actualization of the mask, I have to say I'm impressed. But, as with all my reviews, I'm going to nitpick as much as I can but just remember, in the grand scheme of things, most of it is probably negligible.
While the size isn't optimum for someone with a larger face like me, I have to say that the fit was very snug. Even without the nose bridge, it felt closely fitted to my face which is key in keeping out unfiltered air from coming in at the sides.
The mask was also sewn in the way that creates a face-conforming shape with means it's not too stuffy even with a tight fit. Putting it on, the material was absolutely in the right choice in achieving this comfort level. It feels like having a worn-in cotton t-shirt over your face.
The close fit is largely due to the length of the ear loops. While it felt comfortable with my mask on, it lacks the elasticity in a drugstore-bought surgical mask. This is evident when you move the mask to your chin, something I do at times when I need to take a drink or eat. It would still stay on in doing so, but pull down on your ears quite a bit.
I'm pretty impressed with the innovation of the nose bridge slot which allows you to replace the metal, considering I've never seen a mask with this. The mask comes with three twisty ties. When you run out, you can pretty much use any kind of malleable metal at home. I created a loop with a kanthal wire that I bought when I was into vaping a long time ago and it worked fine.
Just putting the wire in and bending it to shape your nose, there is a natural tension that prevents the wire from coming out. Even then, I rather wear the mask with the nose bridge slot facing out in the off chance the wire slips out and scratches my nose.
While it says on the product description that keeping every stitch straight isn't the highest priority, there is a minimum level as expected of the TOM BIHN crew. While the stitch right now the middle isn't straight, it does not affect the functionality or comfort of the mask.
Edit: After a week of use
While the small face coverage of the mask is bearable, the biggest issue was that the mask is too tight to stay on the ears. Prolonged wear would cause one side of the ear loops to slip off. Unless you have a small face, I would recommend getting the larger version.
Given the shortage of masks around the world, TOM BIHN has stepped up and made some pretty awesome masks available. If you don't need a mask. consider donating one for half the price instead.