Why should you wear a mask? Do surgical masks protect you from other people or other people from you? This post highlights 7 things about surgical masks that you need to know.
What are face coverings?
Face coverings can be broadly classified into two categories: respiratory masks and cloth face coverings. Respiratory masks are meant to protect the wearer while cloth face coverings are considered as breath diverting devices.
The main reason as to why you should wear a cloth face covering is to protect other people from you. These breath diverting devices prevent exhaled air from traveling too far from the wearer. It is for this reason that they are considered to offer a little amount of protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But if well designed, cloth face coverings can be effective in reducing the extent of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Even though surgical masks are often referred to as face masks, not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks. FDA defines surgical masks and N95 respirators as examples of personal protective equipment used to offer protection against infectious elements by “droplet” or “airborne particles”. Surgical masks are loose-fitting and disposable face masks. They cover the mouth, nose, and chin of the wearer.
Surgical masks are typically used to prevent the transmission of contaminated respiratory secretions and saliva from the wearer to those in close distance. They protect others from you. Unlike N95 respirators, surgical masks are supposed to be used only once. They are not reusable.
Surgical masks come in different designs and with varied thickness. It is because of this difference in design and thickness that the ability of surgical masks to protect you from airborne droplets and liquids varies.
The main limitation of surgical masks is that because of their loose-fitting nature, they do not guarantee you complete protection from contaminants.
What are Surgical Masks Made of?
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, health agencies in the USA have been urging people to wear face masks so as to reduce the extent of spread of the virus. But since demand has overwhelmed demand, many Americans have chosen to sew their own fabric masks. It is important to note that there isn’t much information about the effectiveness of these homemade masks.
According to this study published in the journal Physics of Fluids, the materials used in the making of a face mask greatly influence its effectiveness. Verma, Ph.D., the lead author in the study, explains that they are no clear guidelines yet on the design and materials to be used in making face masks.
Christopher Zangmeister, from NIST, argues that a 100% cotton material is the best choice for making face masks. The material also needs to be tightly woven. He argues that compared to synthetic fibers, natural fibers present in cotton have more three-dimensional structures. This 3D structure is responsible for blocking incoming particles.
Keep in mind that he who wears a mask made from synthetic fibers is better off than he who wears no mask at all.
This paper published in June 2020 states that masks with multiple layers are more effective in offering protection from contaminated airborne particles. The article says that a filter made from Polypropylene should be placed in between the layers.
How Different are Surgical Masks from Cloth Masks?
In this experiment, cloth masks resulted in significantly higher rates of infections than medical masks. The physical properties of cloth masks potentially increase the infection risk of the wearer.
The major difference between cloth masks and surgical masks is infiltration. Cloth masks have extremely poor filtration, almost 0%.
Surgical masks are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. There is no regulation for cloth masks as most are home-made. There also no clear guidelines yet on the materials to be used and designs for making cloth masks.
Surgical masks which are commonly referred to as medical masks protect those near the wearer from his or her respiratory secretions and saliva. Cloth masks, on the other hand, protects the wearer in a public setting.
How Different are Surgical Masks from N95 Respirators?
The main difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators lies in the design of the facial fit. While surgical masks have a loose facial fit, N95 respirators are designed to be tight fitting.
Another difference between the two lies in the certification and clearance for use. Surgical masks are cleared for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration, whereas N95 respirators are tested and certified for use by the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health.
Another feature that differentiates surgical masks from N95 respirators is the amount of protection they offer to the wearer. N95 respirators have a high filtration efficiency and therefore guarantee you the wearer more protection against contaminated airborne particles. Surgical masks protect others from you.
Are Surgical Masks Effective Against COVID-19?
Information provided by John Hopkins, show that healthcare workers who are not in direct contact with COVID-19 patients are using surgical masks. Like cloth masks, surgical masks do not have a tight seal and for this reason, they are not effective against COVID-19.
Healthcare workers dealing with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 positive patients are advised to use N95 respirators with no valves.
How Do We Dispose of Surgical Masks?
The World Health Organization has provided guidelines on how to put on, use, and dispose of face masks. According to these guidelines, you are not supposed to touch the mask while using it. If you happen to touch it, wash your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer or soap with water for at least 20 seconds.
Surgical masks are single-use masks and have to be replaced as soon as they are damp. The surgical mask is removed from behind and immediately wrapped in a tissue paper or polythene bag before being discarded in a closed bin. Do not touch the front portion while taking the mask off. You are then required to thoroughly wash your hands with running water and soap.