Face masks are so popular that anything involving surgical masks and N95 masks is frequently searched in Google and asked in online communities where people get answers from other members.
There are many things that people want to know about the surgical mask and N95 mask. One of the most common questions is whether these face masks can be reused and how to decontaminate them safely.
Surgical mask and N95 mask shortage
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned surgical masks and N95 masks into must-have PPEs, leading to a shortage of supply during the first few months of the pandemic. Healthcare workers had to reuse their surgical and N95 masks due to inadequate supply. Even regular citizens were scrambling to get their surgical masks and N95 masks.
Because of this shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise the public to use cloth masks instead of surgical masks and N95 masks. Some have heeded the CDC’s advice while others continue to use surgical and N95 masks.
Types of face masks
Why do some people prefer to use a surgical mask or N95 mask? Is a cloth mask not enough? Cloth masks help in slowing down the spread of the novel coronavirus by trapping the user’s respiratory secretions and saliva which may be infected by the virus. Asymptomatic people may not be aware that they carry the virus. By using a cloth mask, the virus is contained in the mask and won’t spread to others.
When choosing a washable cloth mask, make sure that the mask has two or more layers of breathable fabric. The cloth mask should cover your nose and mouth and must fit properly on the sides of your face. There should be no gaps between your face and the cloth mask. On the other hand, do not buy a cloth mask that is made of hard to breathe fabric like vinyl. Do not use a cloth mask that has vents or valves as it allows the virus to escape.
Surgical and N95 masks
A surgical mask is a disposable face mask that covers the user’s mouth and nose. It serves as a physical barrier between the user and the contaminants in the environment. Surgical masks are fluid resistant and block large droplets, splatters, and splashes. However, it does not block small airborne particles generated through coughing, sneezing, and some medical procedures.
A surgical mask prevents another person’s respiratory droplets and saliva from entering your nose and mouth. Similarly, it prevents your respiratory secretions from getting into the nose and mouth of close contacts.
An N95 mask is a disposable respiratory device that provides the user with a high level of protection against small airborne particles. An N95 mask effectively filters out at least 95 percent of airborne particles when worn properly and a close facial fit is achieved. Its edges form a seal around the user’s mouth and nose, preventing airborne particles from getting in through the sides of the N95 mask. Most of the air that the wearer inhales goes straight to the filter of the N95 mask.
Can I reuse my face mask?
Yes, you can reuse a cloth mask simply by washing it every day. However, a surgical mask and N95 mask should be discarded after use. The CDC only recommends the decontamination of N95 masks in healthcare settings where there are available equipment and trained personnel to handle the process.
Some people use certain methods to decontaminate their surgical masks and N95 masks, but these have not been proven to be effective. One of the rather commonly asked questions is if freezing sanitizes a surgical mask and N95 mask.
Should you freeze your surgical mask and N95 mask?
There is no specific research that focuses on the effects of freezing on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, what we know is that other viruses are actually more potent at lower temperatures.
Placing your surgical mask or N95 mask inside the freezer does not control infection. In fact, the virus will remain alive, and freezing your face mask may actually conserve the virus. Viruses related to the novel coronavirus have been living in freezing temperatures for a long time and won’t be annihilated by such methods.
Even your cloth mask should not be frozen. Washing your cloth mask at 60 degrees Celsius is the most effective way to get rid of the virus.
Instead of freezing your surgical mask or N95 mask, you may put it in a paper bag and keep it at room temperature for seven days. You will need a couple of surgical masks and N95 masks to ensure you have a clean one ready. Put a label on the paper bags and use a different one for each day of the week.
This method is recommended by some doctors and experts as it is an easy way to store surgical masks and N95 masks and allow them to be reused. Then again, you have to remember that surgical masks and N95 masks are still better off treated as single-use face masks.
Because of the shortage of face masks early on in the pandemic, people have come up with ways to decontaminate their face masks. What seems to be an effective way to clean your surgical and N95 mask may actually give you false assurance, thinking that your mask has been properly decontaminated. As your face mask may carry viruses and other harmful particles, you should handle it properly and dispose of it when you can.