How do I Choose the Best Prosthetic Mask?

Niko Bates

Prosthetic masks are one of the easiest ways to build a foundation for a good costume. Whether the costume is intended for personal or professional use, the prosthetic mask has simplified what could otherwise be hours of makeup application since the inception of the latex mask in the 1930s. The choice of the best mask depends on the comfort, ease of application and detail of the mask in question — and, of course, the intended use of the prosthetic mask.

Prosthetic masks are often used as visual effects in Hollywood movies.
Prosthetic masks are often used as visual effects in Hollywood movies.

A mask’s comfort depends greatly on what composes the mask. Prosthetics can be made from a number of materials, including latex, plastic and silicone. Latex masks are by far the most common, having been a staple of moviemaking since their heavy use in The Wizard of Oz. Latex has been so popular because of the relative ease of working with the material and its similarity to skin.

Latex masks become popular after they were heavily used in The Wizard of Oz.
Latex masks become popular after they were heavily used in The Wizard of Oz.

The movie industry has made a move to silicone-based masks, and this progression has moved into the private field as well. Silicone is more durable, heat-resistant, waterproof and able to take more detailed shapes, It is, however, substantially more expensive to produce silicone masks, so latex remains the leading option for most people.

Construction as well as material plays a major role in the comfort of a prosthetic mask. An number of latex masks are one-size-fits-all, full-enclosure masks intended to suffice for a majority of consumers. Although these certainly serve some purposes, they aren’t really the most comfortable.

More often than not, vision and ventilation are major issues, because these masks rarely fit snugly enough to allow natural range of vision and are thick or heavy enough that hot air builds up inside. Foam latex is still rubber, after all, and rubber gets very muggy if it’s much thicker than a few layers of skin. That said, they still serve some purposes. They require no application and are often quite durable, allowing for multiple uses over the years.

A more serious choice for the prosthetic mask is the prosthetic appliance. These molded latex, silicone or glycerin gel pieces are typically only as thick as a few layers of skin. They are applied directly to the face with an adhesive such as spirit gum, and they allow natural range of vision, a more or less custom fit and better breathability than full-enclosure masks. Prosthetic appliances, however, typically require some degree of makeup use and further application of liquid latex to blend the appliance into the user’s skin and face structure. This demands time and a degree of skill, but it's nothing that a step-by-step tutorial couldn’t walk a layman through accomplishing.

The prosthetic mask is a versatile, influential and typically affordable tool for fleshing out and finishing a costume. It’s been the gold standard of visual effects since the Golden Age of Hollywood and isn't likely to be going anywhere anytime soon. The variety of available types of masks might make choosing the right mask for the occasion a bit daunting, but a little understanding of those options makes the job substantially easier.

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