How effective is a surgical mask when around others not wearing masks?

Surgical masks which are also known as medical face masks are constructed originally for health professionals so they can wear them during health care procedures. Surgical masks were designed to protect the user which most of the time is the health personnel from bacteria particles inside liquid droplets and aerosols emanating from the respiratory system via the nose and mouth.

They are not designed to withstand very small particles of bacteria or viruses that are transmitted through the air but can protect against small particles of bacteria and viruses inside airborne droplets or aerosols.

There is a lot of evidence in medical science literature that shows that surgical masks can protect the user and others in the immediate environment from small invading particles of bacteria and viruses.

Generally, these masks were originally designed to protect medical personnel from splashes, sprays, and spurt of body fluids. Their ability to protect against airborne diseases such as influenza is yet to be confirmed by high-quality randomized control trials.

Surgical masks are of different quality and levels of protection. Though they are called surgical masks most of the time, this does not mean that all the masks are exactly designed to be used during surgical procedures. Some of them are meant to be used in isolation wards and are labeled as such. Also, some others are designed to be used for dental or medical procedures and are labeled as such. In China, these masks are categorized into different sections. They can either be medical ( which are non-surgical) and surgical masks which are designed for surgical procedures.

Structure of a surgical mask

Surgical masks are made of a non-woven fabric material that is created using a melt blowing process. This is a conventional fabrication method of micro and nanofibers where a polymer melt is extruded through small nozzles surrounded by high speed blowing gas. The randomly deposited fibers form a non-woven sheet product applicable for filtration systems and many others.

They came into large scale use in the 1960s and are the substitution of choice for cloth facemasks in developed countries. It has two sides which perform different functions. One side is always white while the other side is either in blue or green color. The blue or green colored side is the fluid repellant side and is to be worn outside while the white-colored side is the absorbent side and is to be on the inside.

When it comes to infections such as influenza, they are touted to be as effective as other respirators such as N95 masks or the filter facepiece masks though it has been shown that N95 masks provide more level of protection according to laboratory experiments due to their make up material, shape and tight seal.

Surgical mask use during the Coronavirus Pandemic

In this time of Coronavirus pandemic, the use of surgical masks as a facemask for protection has been a major subject of debate. One of the central issues to this debate is the gross shortage of these masks. 

Due to the advent of the virus, there has been an increase in demand greater than the way It was in the past. This has made the normal level of production globally to be inadequate to meet the high demand from the public.

There is a lot of competition for supplies from different countries which are also compounded by the problem of the increase in the price of surgical masks because of the high demand. Some deliveries which are seized by local authorities and orders that are canceled by the selling company are most of the time redirected to countries that have the highest bid. In other instances, medical professionals have been instructed to be silent about these shortages and not to report to protect the image of the government.

Before this pandemic, the surgical masks are popularly worn by the general public all year round in East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China to reduce the probability of transmitting airborne diseases to one another and to prevent the breathing in of airborne dust and fume particles created by air pollution. Also, surgical masks have now become a fashion trend in contemporary East Asian culture which is motivated by their popularity in the Japanese and Korean pop culture.

The function of a Surgical Mask

A surgical mask naturally by design is not constructed to block very small airborne particles. Hence, they offer little protection when it comes to very small particles of viruses that are contained in droplets and aerosols expelled when talking, coughing, or sneezing or when performing a medical procedure. It also does not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the face mask and the user’s face.

Surgical masks are loosely fitted, a disposable medical device that creates a medical barrier between the wearer’s nose and mouth, and the potential contaminants in the user’s immediate environment.

When they are worn properly, they are designed to block small particles from droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that might be of a bacteria or virus from getting to the mouth and nose of the wearer.

They are very effective barriers for retaining large droplets coming from the respiratory system and released from the mouth and nose of the wearer. They help to reduce the risk of exposing droplets from the user’s respiratory system to others in the external environment. Droplets and secretions from the user's mouth and nose that could travel to a distance of 26  are prevented.

How effective are they around others who are not wearing a surgical mask?

It is already shown that they help to prevent droplets emanating from the user's respiratory system from traveling via the airways to the nose and mouth and exiting through these two outlets into the external environment. These droplets are absorbed by the absorbent layer which is the white-colored layer inside thereby preventing them from getting out.

But, it is shown that the droplets repellant side which is the blue or green colored side is only able to repel against small droplets containing bacteria, virus and other contaminants but are not as effective as the N95 respirators which has a better filtering material and a tight seal unlike the loose fit of the surgical mask.

Therefore, to augment the effectiveness of the facemask, it is advised that other people in the environment are putting on their surgical masks as well to reduce the number of droplets from their respiratory system that will be expelled into the external environment, thereby decreasing the risk of transmission.


A surgical mask is more effective in preventing the spread of an airborne disease which is transmitted via air droplets or aerosols when most of the people in the environment are on their masks. It helps the mask to protect against the droplets that might escape from the sides of the face due to the loose fit.

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