“Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.”

These words of iconic fashion photographer Bill Cunningham have found a new meaning on the streets of Delhi. In the capital, where the winter evenings take on a smoggy grey hue, the accessory many are sporting “to survive” their reality isn’t a handbag or designer shoes – it’s an anti-pollution face mask.

Meant to protect the wearer from the capital’s noxious pollution, the masks are slowly becoming the fashion accessory of choice among the elite of Delhi. For good reasons too. The level of airborne fine particulate matter (commonly referred to as PM 2.5) regularly crosses 300 micrograms per cubic metre, 12 times the standard set by the World Health Organisation.

The traffic police personnel were given face masks with replaceable filters to shield themselves from dust and deteriorating air quality, which had pushed the government to experiment with odd-even road rationing. The public has taken to the same idea but with an added splash of colour and style.

Several brands of anti-pollution masks have cropped up in Delhi’s markets, ranging from simple disposable cloth varieties to reusable ones fitted with a filtering system. Masks by companies such as Vogmask, OnMask, Respro and 3M, are equipped with advanced filters which can professedly block out particulate matter as tiny as 0.3 microns, one-eighth the size of PM 2.5.

Along with safety, style is a priority. The masks come in different colours and prints to match your outfit. Vogmask has gone a step further and introduced a line of designer masks by Manish Arora. The collection, priced at Rs 2,000 and above, boasts of vivid paisley motifs and geometric prints. These were a part of the designer’s Spring/Summer collection showcased at the Paris Fashion Week last year, where the audience tried on the designer masks and posed for pictures.

For most people, however, practical considerations outweigh style. According to Ankit Arora, a salesman at Vogmask’s store in Khan Market, their biggest seller remains the plain black mask.

The reusable masks, offered by Vogmask and OnMask, are priced between Rs 300 and Rs 2,500. Others, like the N95 mask, don’t really aim for the catwalk look, but they do have the benefit of economy. They are much cheaper at Rs 60-70, available at local drug stores, and can only be used about 4-5 times.

Need of the hour

Kamya Rajagopal, a 31-year-old lawyer, said she bought a mask when she felt her breathing had become heavy and audible. “It was always smoky and grey outside, and coupled with all the news reportage on the rising particulate matter count, air pollution just seemed like a likely cause,” said Rajagopal, who usually wears the mask while travelling during peak hours. She said her condition has steadied since she started using the mask.

Jai Dhar Gupta, CEO of Vogmask India, had a similar experience. He started using pollution masks on discovering that his lung capacity had declined significantly after moving to Delhi. “I went from being in the pink of health to feeling almost terminally ill,” Gupta, a marathon runner, said. “That air pollution was a factor was something that had not even occurred to me.” He found Vogmask online and ordered a few for himself and his family.

Gupta then went a step further and brought Vogmask to India under the name Nirvana Being. The non-disposable and washable masks offered by the company claim to be highest filtering anti-pollution masks in the world. “It’s not just function, it’s fashion as well. To a large extent, there has been a stigma associated with putting on a mask,” said Gupta. “That stigma is slowly disappearing. We’re slowly moving towards a society that is hip and aware.”

Gupta says that Indians are reactive. “We’re quite apathetic to everything environment-related,” he said. “We wait to fall sick to take action. There is very little knowledge about air pollution and no awareness about the harmful pollutants in the air and how much of it we inhale every day.”

Gupta says the decrease in sales during the 15 days of the odd-even trial proved his point. “People are under the illusion that the odd-even policy will work like a magic wand to fix Delhi’s pollution problems," he lamented.

Shephali Shrimali, OnMask CEO, agrees. “People know there is air pollution but somehow think that it doesn’t impact them directly and hence don’t take preventive steps,” she said. The 32-year-old stressed on the importance of masks for children under five years. “These are the years when their organs are developing and breathing polluted air hampers their growth,” Shrimali said.

OnMask was introduced in the market three years ago, but Shrimali said that it is only now that the demand has gone up. Delhi is their third largest customer base and OnMask has seen an increase in the number of orders from the city in the last two months.

At Help Delhi Breathe, an event recently organised by concerned citizens to raise awareness about Delhi’s hazardous air pollution, large numbers of people demanded public policy to tackle the issue. Many of them were wearing masks. Some of the participants admitted that they don’t put on the masks regularly despite noticing a difference in the air quality. Some said they simply forget because it is not yet a habit and it is, finally, a lifestyle change. Others said they felt uncomfortable about having their mouth covered all the time.

A few users told us when and why they started using anti-pollution masks.

Usha Alexander, 51, author

I began wearing a pollution mask two months ago, ever since I learned how serious the consequences of exposure can be. After hearing about healthy adults who developed respiratory problems from Delhi’s air pollution, it seemed sensible to try and protect myself to the extent that I can.

Sunil Dahiya, 26, campaigner with Greenpeace India

I have been wearing a mask (N95) since October. I'm aware that I can end up breathing a lot of pollutants mixed in the air which can damage my lungs if I don’t use precautionary measures to safeguard my health, or until the government takes strict actions to reduce air pollution levels. Initially when I started using the mask, I felt a little difficulty in breathing because I was not used to it, but eventually it started feeling good as my body felt less loaded with air pollutants.

Namita Gupta, 37, entrepreneur

I started using a mask in September when I realised that after working out in the open, my asthma was getting aggravated. I started using my inhaler regularly before and after workouts, but it kept getting worse. I finally went in to see my pulmonologist, who told me that my wheezing was really bad. He put me on oral steroids for five days. At my follow-up visit, he asked me to use the steroids for another five days. This was a wake-up call for me. I stopped working out outdoors and started regularly wearing a mask when outdoors. This has helped keep my asthma under control. For me, the style factor is a plus but not essential. Effectiveness, comfort, reusability and affordability were more important.

Naina, 16, student

I used to laugh at my mom wearing a mask and resisted her attempts to make me wear one. Then the headaches and frequent coughs started getting worse. Now, I always carry my mask with me when I know I'm going to be outdoors, especially in the winters. Vogmask is more stylish, but I'm okay with any mask which has a N95 or N99 rating. If only there were more inexpensive options.

Dr Manjali Khosla, 46, managing director of Self Storage India and co-founder of Care for Air

I moved to Delhi from Canada in 2012 and was very much aware of the so-called 'Delhi Belly'. I had expected to fall sick for the first year or so upon my arrival. What I hadn’t expected was being diagnosed with pneumonia twice within the first two years of moving to Delhi. My personal research led me to investigate the contents of the foul air, which I could feel every time I came back from a holiday overseas – a dry, scratchy throat that has a bitter aftertaste.

Being a research scientist in the field of asthma medication, my investigation led me to believe that the cause of my constant lingering cough was caused by the irritants in the air I was breathing, and not from what I was eating or some bug. This led to further investigations into air purifiers and masks which could help keep my family safe from the high-level pollutants in the air. The one I wear is a Respro mask and the next best thing to a gas mask.

I got different colours so that they don't get mixed up with those of other family members. The colourful ones are attractive but many aren't available in sizes for children or for those with small faces. I find the white ones ugly and too large for my face. They also start looking dirty faster. The only masks that cater to smaller faces are Vogmasks. Now they have designer ones too. We wear masks all year round and I have noticed that the coughing is subdued (if it starts at all) when I wear it. I have been mostly cough-free for the past two years.