Is a surgical mask considered a part of PPE?

A surgical mask is also often referred to as a ‘medical mask’, a ‘procedure mask’, or simply a ‘face mask’. It was created for health professionals and meant to serve as a protector against bacterial fluids and droplets. The surgical mask is widely used in hospitals during medical procedures like surgeries—since the mask can block particle droplets from reaching the user’s mouth and nose, the surgical mask, simultaneously protects the other people in the room as well. Therefore, these masks are considered to be a necessity during medical procedures as they ensure the safety of both the medical professional and the patient.

Origin of surgical masks

Surgical masks first became popular in the 1960s but before that, this three-layered mask was used initially in 1920 by the Germans and the Americans. Surgical masks were rejected for a long time but in the 1960s they completely replaced cloth masks. However, in the present time, surgical masks and cloth masks, both are widely used. In fact, during the pandemic, WHO recommended the use of cloth masks for the public and to leave surgical masks and respirators for the healthcare workers like these two pieces of PPE were in extreme shortage.

Production and quality

A surgical mask is produced through the melt blowing process, which entails the extrusion of polymer melt through small nozzles through a blowing gas at a very high speed. In addition, a surgical mask is created from non-woven fabric which is obtained by bonding short and long fibers together through chemical treatment or other methods. Besides the original surgical mask, there are other variants of this mask which even though are classified as surgical masks, but aren’t fit to be worn during medical procedures. Surgical masks may also vary in quality and the difference between a surgical mask appropriate for medical usage and a normal surgical mask is determined by the Chinese health officials.

Use of surgical masks as personal protective equipment

Personal protective equipment or PPE refers to face masks such as the N95 respirators and surgical masks. Although, the term PPE is quite extensive and is not only limited to the usage of these two masks. However, a large portion of PPE is defined by the N95 and surgical mask because using these two pieces of PPE is the very first step towards protecting oneself against the novel coronavirus disease. PPE, in the broad sense, englobes all the necessary items which may be used by a healthcare professional or any other person to ensure their safety. A respirator, mask, hazmat suit, sanitizer, and even face shields qualify as part of PPE.

Even though surgical masks are considered a part of PPE, the use of these masks during this pandemic has been a subject of debate. This is because a surgical mask isn’t designed like a respirator and cannot provide protection to the user from inhaling airborne particulates. Furthermore, these masks are also unable to provide maximum protection against germs and other bacteria because of the loose fit that leaves plenty of space between the user’s face and the mask allowing contaminants to seep through it.

In conclusion, a surgical mask is not the best choice for a PPE, especially if the user wants to protect themselves against influenzas like diseases or the current pandemic of the COVID-19. The surgical mask on countless occasions has been compared to N95 masks as these both masks were widely used during the pandemic by the healthcare professions and the general public as well. In terms of performance, N95 certainly outdoes a surgical mask as the respirator provides 95% protection against all airborne particulates and is further certified by NIOSH and FDA.

Surgical masks as a substitute for N95?

 When the coronavirus pandemic began, there was a prevalent shortage of respirators and surgical masks across all the hard-hit countries. Healthcare professionals, who were the most vulnerable to contracting this virus were suffering because of the lack of PPE such as respirators, and were afraid for their lives. N95 respirators, the mask recommended by WHO for the healthcare staff was unavailable in many hospitals across the United States. To alleviate this problem, healthcare professionals, and essential workers that includes grocery store workers, farm and factory workers, firefighters, and a few others as well as resorted to wearing surgical masks.

Many hospitals came up with another solution which consisted of reusing old N95 respirators that is also debatable since an N95 is originally prescribed to be worn for a limited time only as the mask is disposable. But if one compares the use of a used N95 mask with a respirator, a used N95 respirator would still be a better choice for healthcare professionals than a surgical mask.


Surgical masks, along with the N95 are the two major components of PPE. Although surgical masks are comparatively less efficient in performance than an N95, the use of these masks is still prevalent in the medical sector. Originally produced to be used during medical procedures, surgical masks have also become popular among the masses. These masks protect droplets and fluids which makes them appropriate for use in surgeries too, protecting both the medical professional and the patient.

Even though surgical masks were also used in the medical sector during the ongoing pandemic, the use of this mask specifically by the healthcare professionals is not recommended as a surgical mask is unable to protect against all airborne particulates.

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