Soaring summer temperatures can make wearing a coronavirus-blocking mask a challenge - but Japan is innovating to keep wearers cool
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By Beh Lih Yi
Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From masks with ice packs to cooling sprays, products designed to make wearing a coronavirus-protective face covering more bearable in sweltering summer heat have become a hit in Japan.
Wearing a face mask outdoors has become mandatory in many cities as governments seek to contain the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 people around the world.
But medical experts have warned rising temperatures also mean rising potential for heat illnesses, particularly when wearing a face covering, as this summer shapes up to be one of the hottest on record.
Tapping into demand for solutions to both problems, Japanese firms have launched items aimed at keeping mask wearers cooler, with sports brand Descente introducing a face covering that comes with cooling packs.
"We wanted to do what we could in our current environment, where wearing a mask has become mandatory because of the wide spread of COVID-19 infection" said Tomoko Kitazawa, a spokeswoman at Descente, best known for its ski apparel.
The company's mask "is recommended not only for people who play sports but also for people who work outside", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
More than half of the 2,000 face guards produced have been sold since they went on sale early August, the firm added.
A spray for face masks that can create a cooling effect that lasts about 15 minutes also has nearly sold out since its launch last month, said its maker Big Bio, which produces household items.
"We have sold over 35,000 (bottles)," said Ono Hajime, the firm's head of business. "We think it will be popular until early autumn."
A mint spray by Kitami Hakka Tsusho, a company known for its mint products, similarly has enjoyed blistering sales, as buyers use it to cool face masks, its makers said on social media.
A spokesman for Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo said its washable Airism masks - made with breathable fabric used in the brand's popular underwear - also have been a hit.
Japanese shoppers queued outside the firm's stores in the rain and crashed its website the first day the mask went on sale in June.
It is now being introduced in overseas markets, including in the United States and Singapore, the firm said.
Health experts have warned that the pandemic will compound the risks of hot weather for many people. Last month was the world's third-hottest July on record according to data from the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service.
Matthew Levy, an expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said people wearing masks in hot conditions should take frequent short breaks and stay hydrated.
But he cautioned against products that tout cooling benefits but might reduce the effectiveness of a mask.
"In theory, these products might offer benefit," said Levy, an associate professor of emergency medicine, in an email.
"However, there's a difference between using a product such as a cooling vest or pack to minimise the risk of heat illness versus applying a spray to a mask that's not designed to get wet or tested for effectiveness when wet," he added.
Temperatures have soared past 40 degrees Celsius (104F) in central Japan last week, and about 80 people - mostly senior citizens - have died from heatstroke or heat exhaustion in central Tokyo this month, The Japan Times newspaper reported.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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