The face masks commonly known as surgical masks are a type of disposable face mask that is used primarily in the healthcare field. They act mainly as a physical barrier between the person wearing it, specifically their mouth and nose, and the potentially harmful particles in the air they breathe. They can be used in medical, dental, or surgical procedures, and must be labeled as such. Just like N95 respirators, they can be worn with face shields for increased protection.
Some people refer to them as “regular” face masks, but this doesn’t mean any type of face mask can be considered a surgical mask. They are tightly regulated items that are intended to be used during medical procedures where keeping a sterile field is important, and are required to meet certain qualifications to be considered as such. Therefore, not any type of face mask can substitute them in the medical field. Surgical masks can come with varying levels of thickness, which means they can offer varying levels of protection and breathability to the user.
As we mentioned, they’re disposable face masks. This means that they’re meant to be used once and then discarded, and they’re also not intended to be shared with other people. The mask needs to be discarded properly after it’s been used, or if it gets damaged. For example, when the mask gets wet, it won’t work effectively anymore. A person should also remove a surgical mask if they’re experiencing difficulty breathing with them. Before and after handling the mask, the user must wash their hands to avoid contamination.
We also mentioned that surgical masks have the main function of acting as a physical barrier between the wearer’s mucous membranes from the mouth and nose and the pathogens that might be carried in fluids. These fluids can be in the form of droplets, sprays, splashes, or splatter, and the mask prevents them from being in contact with the nose and mouth, so the microorganisms don’t infect and colonize the body of the wearer. Many respiratory diseases are spread this way, including COVID-19.
However, as a filter, they can’t trap and protect against small airborne particles, like dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. They’re designed to filter out only larger particles, and therefore can’t protect against these hazards the way N95 respirators can. This is why they’re not considered the best option for virus protection, since their antiviral properties aren’t as high. Plus, the loose fit of the mask makes leakages possible, so the wearer isn’t inhaling 100% filtered air, as opposed to N95 respirators which have a tight fit around the face.
This is also why the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend these face masks as the main resource for virus protection, but they say they can be used as substitutes when N95 masks aren’t available in a healthcare setting. Before the pandemic, these face masks were commonly worn by nurses, doctors, dentists, and other types of healthcare providers. Now, it’s more common to see them being used by regular people in public.
Since these masks were previously unknown to the general public, and all of a sudden they’re part of their daily lives, it’s easy to believe false information and to have misconceptions about them. Some two the most popular believes about surgical masks include:
- N95 masks are the same as surgical masks: N95 respirators are a type of respirator inside the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety) classification, which is the filtration standard inside the USA. According to this, it’s a term used to refer to respirators that can filter out at least 95% of all the non-oil based airborne particles, because they don’t have any resistance to oil. This means they can filter out very small particles, which isn’t the case with surgical masks. They also, unlike surgical masks, fit very tightly around the face to prevent leakage of air and are usually worn in a wide variety of work settings, including sometimes the healthcare field. As the name suggests, surgical masks have been designed specifically to be worn as medical equipment.
- You don’t have to be careful when handling it: surgical masks need to be sterile to perform their function, and if they get contaminated, they should be immediately discarded. This means that the wearer should always have clean hands when handling it, preferably through the ear-loops or headbands, without touching the inside or outside of the mask. Needless to say, this also means they shouldn’t be shared.
- Filters can be added to the mask: surgical face masks already have a filter included in them, so there’s no need to add any more. Continuing on the last misconception, modifying the face mask can eliminate their filtrating and protective qualities, either by contaminating the face mask (which has to be completely sterile) or by damaging the filtering layers they come with. Adding filters is a good way to increase the protection of reusable cloth masks, but there’s no need to add them to surgical masks.
Surgical masks are one of the most requested items right now, and even though they have been one of the scarce medical supplies across the country, they can still be found for sale online in bulk and wholesale, even in a smaller size for kids. You can also find other protective items, like KN95 masks or 3M N95 masks, including the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511. The important thing is to stay protected and to protect those around you, and anyone who uses a face-covering of any kind in public is doing their part during this difficult time.