A breath of fresh air

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Kihei residents Molly Palmer (left) and Danielle Travis are the co-founders of “The Barrier Method,” a stylish, comfortable and germ-deflecting travel mask.

Whether you’re on a plane, train or bus, there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get your attention: a wet, phlegmy cough erupting over your shoulder. It’s a sound that leaves many of us fumbling for a sleeve, shirt collar — anything — to shield against the invisible army of germs hurtling through the air.

And it’s a sound that motivated Molly Palmer and Danielle Travis to take action.

Nearly two years ago, Palmer, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, flew to Lake Tahoe to go snowboarding, while Travis, a Realtor, headed to Southern California to visit friends. Both picked up unwanted souvenirs on their flights home to Maui: a sinus infection and a head cold.

Hoping some sun and saltwater would alleviate their misery, the two friends grabbed their surfboards one afternoon and headed to the beach. That day, as they sat on their boards waiting for the next set of waves to roll in, the pair began to commiserate. “We talked about how sick we were of getting sick while traveling,” Palmer recalled. “At one point, Danielle said: ‘Why don’t people wear masks when they fly?”

That’s when they had simultaneous “aha” moment.

Anytime she flies, Molly Palmer (pictured here) packs one essential item in her carry-on bag: The Barrier Method travel mask. “I say ‘bring it on’ every time I fly now,” she said.

A few months later, Palmer and Travis signed up for the 2016 Startup Weekend Maui, a three-day event presented by the Maui Economic Development Board that helps fledgling entrepreneurs spread their wings by providing them with an opportunity to learn how to start a business from the ground up. After a whirlwind 54 hours of multiple brainstorm sessions, a handful of design tweaks and one name change, Palmer and Travis were crowned the first-place winners for the startup idea they pitched that weekend, called “The Barrier Method.”

The Barrier Method, which is patent pending, is a trendsetting antimicrobial travel mask that serves as a line of defense against rogue pathogens — and a way for sick travelers to keep their germs to themselves. “It’s one layer of protection to reduce your risk of getting sick . . . or getting other people sick,” Palmer explained.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill medical mask. Designed to be an extension of the wearer’s clothing, the masks snap into scarves or bandanas made of luxuriously soft, antimicrobial fabric in a range of colors and patterns. (Some have tongue-in-cheek slogans like: “It’s not me, it’s you.”) “We made something people would want to wear while traveling,” Palmer said. “It’s a fashionable health product.” She notes that in other parts of the world, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing surgical masks in public — especially in the cramped quarters of an airplane, commuter train or bus — but in the U.S., it’s likely to raise a few eyebrows.

And that’s something Palmer and Travis intend to change.

In an effort to destigmatize the masks, both women wear the protective bandanas or scarves whenever they travel. They’ve received a few curious stares — and lots of questions. On a recent flight to Oahu, Palmer fielded inquiries from intrigued passengers (while wearing a bandana emblazoned with the playful words: “I bite”). And on a flight to Alaska last summer — amid a cacophony of sniffles, sneezes and hacking coughs — Palmer says a woman tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she had a spare mask.

Since they debuted The Barrier Method, neither Palmer nor Travis has fallen ill after flying — something they say was once a routine occurrence. “No more ruined vacations or (post-vacation) sick days,” Palmer said. “I say ‘bring it on’ every time I fly now.”

Today, the innovative duo is taking their product to even greater heights: They plan to incorporate microencapsulated, antimicrobial essential oils into the liners of the masks. On Dec. 1, Palmer and Travis will launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the essential oils testing, research and product manufacturing. To become a backer, search for “The Barrier Method” on kickstarter.com beginning Dec. 1.

Palmer and Travis hope to see The Barrier Method become a go-to travel accessory someday. “Anything we can do to help protect ourselves is worth it — there’s a value to it,” Palmer said. “Because if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”

To learn more about The Barrier Method, visit www.thebarriermethod.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. 

Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

* This article includes a correction.