How durable are surgical masks?

A surgical mask is a type of face mask that aims to protect the wearer from droplets and fluids. Surgical masks were created to cater to the medical workers by providing them protection from infections during surgical and other medical procedures. Due to this reason these masks are also termed as medical masks. Besides the medical purpose, these masks were also widely used in some highly polluted East Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea.

Use of surgical masks as Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment englobes items like surgical masks, N95 masks, hazmat suits, goggles, and other sorts of protective clothing and helmets. The purpose of wearing PPE is to protect the wearer from injuries or infections of various kinds. PPE aims to protect the user from harm that can be caused by electrical, physical, heat, chemical, and airborne particulates. Nowadays, surgical masks like many other masks are enjoying traction among the general public because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of surgical masks against the Coronavirus was widespread in hospitals and among the masses. However, the extent to which a surgical mask may protect against this virus is dubious. This is because these masks are unable to filter out particles floating in the air which renders this mask sort of useless when seeking protection against the virulent COVID-19. Since surgical masks can only filter out large droplets and fluids in the form of either splashes or sprays, it can hinder the transmission of this virus if a carrier coughs or sneezes and ends up exhaling droplets from his mouth or nose.

These droplets, which can travel up to 26 feet are caught in the mask and filtered out. But apart from this, the mask offers seldom protection only. Surgical masks are approved for marketing in the United States by the FDA and are used all year round by medical professionals. These masks also went into shortage because of the immense increase in their demand as a result of the pandemic.

Comparison with respirators

Respirators like the N95 offer better protection than ordinary face masks. They include seal fit and also filter out airborne particulates. The N95 specifically has a filtration efficacy of 95% which is the reason for its dominion over other face masks. Surgical masks and N95s have been compared with each other incessantly during the course of this pandemic.

Their magnitude of protection against the virus particularly has been debated over constantly. While the N95 respirators have a better filtration efficacy, provide a seal-fit, and are approved by NIOSH and recommended by the CDC for healthcare workers. The surgical masks on the other hand are subjected to leakage of 12 to 25%. Furthermore, a study found out that most surgical masks failed a qualitative fit test that was conducted by OSHA.

Durability and overall performance

Coming on to the durability and performance of this mask, the important thing one should be aware of while using a surgical mask is its disposable nature. Surgical masks are meant to be discarded after each use. Since these masks are disposable, using them for an extended period will render them inefficient and futile. Besides surgical masks, an N95 respirator is also disposable and even though reusing N95 masks is not recommended during normal circumstances, the CDC allowed it during the pandemic.

During the first wave, PPE such as surgical masks and N95s, both were in extreme shortage. There wasn’t enough PPE to support all healthcare workers so CDC came up with certain guidelines and allowed the reuse of N95 respirators by sanitizing them through their prescribed methods. Since N95 respirators are more efficient than surgical masks, the concerned authorities mutually agreed that using an old N95 respirator is still better than using surgical masks (both new and old).

This affirms the notion that N95 respirators that are not new still perform better than surgical masks and are even able to regain their filtration efficiency after being sanitized. Where-as a surgical mask, whose filtration efficiency is already not that high would not be able to regain its capability after being washed or sanitized. Moreover, a surgical mask’s performance even in other circumstances is not that impressive. Surgical masks wear off quite easily and especially if they are exposed to extremely dirty environments.

They become soiled, dirty, and difficult to breathe in. They are also not suitable to be worn in construction sites or other such environments where a user may be unsafe as these masks are extremely fragile and will not be able to withstand any sort of damage. If a surgical mask’s headband gets damaged, then the mask will become futile. In addition to this, the mask also becomes futile if the headband is stretched and the mask becomes loose or if the fabric gets damaged in any way.

Conclusion

Surgical masks offer protection against droplets and fluids. They are made out of polypropylene material but are still prone to leakage and damage. Surgical masks are deficient in comparison to an N95 as they are less durable and less efficient as well. They are also disposable and meant to be discarded after each use. If they are overused, they will cause more harm to a person than good. The fact these masks weren’t declared fit for extended use by the authorities also testifies in favor of their weak durability.

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