How effective are surgical masks when around others wearing surgical masks?

In recent times, the modern-day surgical mask began its large-scale appearance in the 1960s. Their adoption brought an end to cloth face masks which had been used since the late 19th century to be completely out of use in the modern world.

Another name given to this facemask is a medical face mask and it is meant to be used by health personnel when carrying out their health care activities. They are designed to protect patients during health care procedures as these health professionals attend to them. Droplets and aerosols from the respiratory system which travel out through the nose and mouth of the doctors and nurses are prevented from getting to the patient.

Surgical masks are not designed to protect the wearers from being exposed to very small particles that are contained in droplets and aerosols that are expelled from the respiratory system of others in the environment. Nevertheless, they help to prevent smaller particles through the filtering process.

It has also been shown that these masks help to protect the wearer and others in the immediate environment from transmitting airborne diseases and from infecting one another especially if community wearing habit is ensured.

These masks were originally designed to protect medical personnel from splashes, sprays or spurts of bodily fluids, but how effective its work in protecting against airborne disease such as influenza is yet to be confirmed as researches are ongoing.

Another reason why its effectiveness is yet to be tested is that it has been the norm in the health care setting as a verifiable means of protection long before now. So, there is no motivation to ascertain if this is true or not based on the fact that they are easy to come about.

Nonetheless, despite being regarded as a surgical mask, this never means they are meant to be used for surgical procedures. Some are meant to be used for medical procedures, others in the isolation ward, and others are meant to be used in surgical theatre. In China, the health regulating authorities make a distinction between a surgical mask meant for surgical procedures, and the one designed for medical procedures. The one used for surgical operations is called surgical masks while the one used for medical activities is known as medical (non-surgical mask).

Surgical Masks Design

Surgical masks are fabricated from a non-woven fabric that is created using a melt blowing process. This is a process whereby a polymer melt is extruded through small nozzles surrounded by high speed blowing gas. The process is a conventional method for fabricating micro and nanofibers. The randomly deposited fibers form a nonwoven sheet product.

The design of a surgical mask depends on the mode of design. Most of the time, the masks are designed as three-ply or three layers masks. This three-layer material is made up of a melt-blown polymer, most commonly polypropylene, that is placed in between a non-woven fabric. The melt-blown material acts as a filter that stops small particles and microorganisms from getting through the mask whether when coming in or going out.

Most of the time, the mask is folded into pleats to allow the user to expand the mask. This is to allow the mask to be able to cover the area from the nose to the chin. Surgical masks are designed to have ear loops, head ties, or elastic straps through which they can be secured to the head.

In the middle layer of the mask is located the filtering material which may be made of microfibers with an electrostatic charge which means the fibers are electromagnetic and are known as electrets. Such a filter raises the probability that a small particle will be attracted and stick to fiber rather than going straight through. This process is known as electron capture.

There are also two sides to the mask. The first side is colored in blue or green while the second side is colored in white. The blue or green side is known as the fluid repellent side and is to be situated outside when worn while the white side is regarded as the absorbent side and is to be on the inside when worn.

Surgical masks are not as effective as the N95 masks or the filtering facepiece masks when it comes to airborne diseases such as influenza. This is because the N95 masks were tested under laboratory studies to offer a higher level of protection and can prevent the passage of very small particles that might pass through the surgical mask filter.

The Quality of a face mask

How well a surgical mask performs is evaluated based on parameters such as filtration, which is the process whereby the mask captures droplets and aerosols, exposure (the number of droplets and aerosols from outside), mask airflow resistance (difference in pressure during breathing also known as the mask breathability), liquid penetration resistance, air, and water vapor permeability, level of water-repelling (for outer and inner surfaces). 

A quality facemask should have a balanced function in each of these parameters though much attention is given to the filtering ability of the mask. All other parameters are equally important as well.

What a surgical mask does

A surgical mask by design is loose fitting and meant to be disposed of after a single-use. It creates a barrier between the user’s face and the external environment. When it is properly worn, it helps to prevent small particles contained in droplets, splashes, sprays, and splutters that might be bacteria or viral particles from getting to the mouth and nose of the wearer.

They also help to prevent droplets expelled from the mouth and nose of the wearer which emanates from the wearer’s respiratory system from getting out to the immediate environment. It prevents these droplets that might have traveled up to a distance of 26 feet from getting out.

However, it does not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and the face of the user.

How effective are they when around others wearing it

It has been established that surgical masks are very effective in trapping the droplets from the users thereby preventing them from getting out into the external environment. 

This effectiveness is further reinforced when others in the immediate environment as well are wearing a surgical mask as droplets from these people are prevented from getting out as well.

But, because of the loose-fitting makeup of the masks, some of these droplets might escape into the atmosphere. This is helpfully repelled by the repellant side of the surgical mask which increases its level of efficiency.

While it is true that surgical masks are not as effective as N95 respirators in filtering against very small particles contained in droplets which might be a bacterial or viral particle or other contaminants, its effectiveness is bolstered when community wearing is ensured as it reduces the number of droplets the mask is exposed to thereby increasing the effectiveness of the mask against invading droplets.


A surgical mask is very effective when others in the environment are wearing it. It is therefore advised that to increase the effectiveness of the surgical mask, everyone should cultivate the habit of wearing it especially when out in the public. This will help to curtail the spread of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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