Surgical Masks: Everything You Need to Know

There are many different ways to cover your face to protect against the novel coronavirus. Surgical masks are one of them. What are surgical masks? How different are surgical masks from cloth masks? Read on to find out more.

Wearing a mask should not make you lower your guard. Masks alone do not protect you from coronavirus. You should continue washing your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water. Maintaining social distance- at least 1-meter distance from others is also important.


What are Surgical Masks?

Surgical masks, commonly referred to as medical masks, are loose-fitting devices that are worn to cover your mouth and nose. They act as a physical barrier between your mouth and nose and the immediate environment. For a material to be termed as a surgical mask, it has to be fluid resistant.

Surgical masks are used in surgical settings even though they do not provide full protection from harmful airborne particles. Surgical masks are typically used to prevent the transmission of contaminated respiratory secretions and saliva from the wearer to those in close distance. If you wear a surgical mask then it protects others from you.

Surgical masks are also categorized as single-use masks- they are not reusable.  This is not the case with N95 respirators. N95 masks can be cleaned and reused. The three recommended methods for cleaning N95 masks are: by use of UV light, by use of moist heat and by use of dry heat. Researchers admit that the single use of surgical masks is not economically sound. At the same time, they are against the reuse of these masks as it can lead to self-contamination.

In terms of design, surgical masks have varied thickness depending on the manufacturer. This explains the difference in the ability of surgical masks to protect you from contaminated airborne particles and fluids.

This type of face-covering has one major limitation. Because of their loose-fitting nature, they do not provide full protection from pathogens such as viruses.


How to wear a medical mask properly

How to wear masks

The World Health Organization has provided comprehensive guidelines on how medical masks should be worn. Surgical masks should be worn in one direction only. Most surgical masks come with an instruction manual that explains how they should be worn. Do not worry if the surgical masks you bought did not come with any instruction manual. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Always wash your hands thoroughly before you touch the mask
  2. Check the mask for any holes or tears. If either is visible, do not put on the mask. Dispose it off immediately in a closed bin.
  • The top side of the mask has a stiff edge. Find it.
  1. The colored side of the surgical mask (mostly blue or green) should face outwards. This is normally the fluid-resistant layer of the mask.
  2. With the stiff edge over your nose, adjust the mask to cover your nose, mouth and chin.
  3. Do not touch the mask while wearing it.
  • Because surgical masks are single-use masks, they have to be removed from behind the ears and discarded into a closed bin after each session.
  • After removing and discarding the mask, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

In some cases, you will find medical masks that have the same color on both sides. Should this happen to you, use your feel of the material to determine the inner and outer side of the mask. The side of the mask that feels rough is the fluid-resistant layer and should go to the outside. The softer side goes to your side.

Read more: Reusing face masks: How to remove, clean and store them safely


How to differentiate between authentic and fake surgical masks

As the demand for surgical masks across the globe continues to grow, unscrupulous traders are taking advantage of this scarcity to supply not-fit-for- use surgical masks. Wearing a mask is not enough- the mask must be genuine and worn properly. A fake surgical mask will not protect you from pathogens such as viruses.

A genuine surgical mask will have three layers. The top layer is usually a translucent piece that is fluid-resistant. The middle layer, usually a white piece, is a filter. The innermost layer, usually the softest layer, is used to absorb water. A fake medical mask will probably not have all these layers.

Funny as it may sound, pay special attention to the word ‘surgical’ that appears on the packaging. On some packaging, you’ll find it written ‘medical-surgical mask’.

To determine if the surgical mask is authentic, perform these three simple tests:

  • Visual test – obviously, a 3-ply surgical mask will have three layers. Split open the mask, if you do not see the 3 layers, the mask is not genuine.
  • Fire test – light the middle layer of the surgical mask with a flame. If the mask is genuine, it will not catch fire. A fake mask will catch fire because the middle layer is probably made of paper.
  • Water test – pour some water on the outer side of the mask. A genuine medical mask will hold up water properly. The bottom side of the mask will also not become wet.

How do surgical masks compare with cloth masks and N95 respirators?

The main difference between surgical masks and N95 masks lies in their filtration efficiency. N95 respirators have a high filtration efficiency thanks to their design. The N95 respirator’s fibers are electrostatic and haphazardly arranged making it hard for particulate matter to pass through. They offer more protection to the wearer because they can filter both small and large particles. The filtration efficiency of medical masks is greatly reduced because of their loose-fitting nature. N95 respirators are designed to have a close facial fit while surgical masks are loose-fitting in nature.

N95 mask

Surgical masks are approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration, whereas N95 respirators are tested and certified for use by the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health, an agency of the US Center for Disease Control.

In this experiment, cloth masks were found to result in a significantly higher rate of infections than surgical masks. This study concluded that compared to cloth face masks, surgical masks have a relatively higher filtration efficiency. The physical properties of cloth masks potentially increase the infection risk of the wearer.

The making and use of cloth face masks are not regulated. There also no clear guidelines yet on the materials to be used and designs for making cloth masks. Cloth masks are home-made and therefore easily and readily available. Here in the US, medical masks are regulated US Food and Drug Administration.

Whereas cloth masks are intended for use by people who show no COVID-19 symptoms, surgical masks health care workers, surgical masks are to be worn people who show COVID-19 symptoms and those taking care of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.

Cloth masks can be washed either by machines or by hands and reused. the cleaning should be with room-temperature water and bleach that is meant for disinfection. After washing the mask, rinse it properly, and leave it to dry. On the other hand, surgical masks are single-use masks that should be replaced as soon as they become damp.

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