Should surgical masks be disposed of after every use?

Face masks act as a barrier between the face and harmful airborne particulates. These masks vary in terms of performance, functionality, etc. N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth masks are the most common type of masks. An N95 respirator is the most efficient face-piece as it can filter out 95% particulates, provides a tight seal fit, and is also available in a number of different models. A surgical mask, on the other hand, is rather loose fitted and does not provide a seal fit either. It is also less efficient in terms of protection and filtration as it only filters out droplets and fluids received either as splashes or spray and does not filter out other particulates.

N95 respirators and cloth masks are widely used in the healthcare sector. The N95 used in the healthcare sector is a specific type of variant called the ‘surgical respirator’. Aside from this, there are also other variants of this respirator used in construction sites and are also worn for protection against pollution. Although surgical masks do not have any variants they are divided into two categories: medical-surgical masks and non-medical surgical masks.

Surgical masks and COVID-19

Since surgical masks were created to cater to medical professionals, they are considered a sort of medical mask. But when the coronavirus pandemic began, this mask also became widely popular among the masses. People who had no medical background were also seen donning a surgical mask to evade the disease of coronavirus. Even though the surgical masks’ efficiency against this disease is rather questionable and CDC recommends the use of N95s instead for the frontline workers because an N95 is the only face-piece that could filter a particle of 0.3 microns.

During the beginning of the pandemic, there was an extreme shortage of PPE including surgical masks and N95s. To alleviate the shortage, The World Health Organization had advised the public to wear cloth masks instead of surgical masks and N95s. A cloth mask is suitable to wear for people who aren’t medical professionals and is also sound to use again and again if washed after each use. But respirators like the N95 and the surgical mask are suitable for one-time use only. These masks are disposable and their efficiency is lost when worn for more than a maximum limit of 24 hours.

Why are surgical masks disposable?

The original use of surgical masks is for medical professionals but besides that, these masks are also used by the general public. Either to seek protection from COVID-19 or to protect oneself from pollution. When hospitals in America and other countries of the world experience a shortage of N95, they resorted to using surgical masks. But this method wasn’t a permanent solution either because surgical masks, like the N95, are also disposable. In a medical setting, where doctors and other staff workers are exposed to carriers of Coronavirus and other virulent diseases, it is extremely necessary that they change their masks after each use.

Surgical masks are made of polypropylene fabric which serves as the mask’s filter. These filters have a limited life and they lose their efficiency after a while. In the pandemic especially, a surgical mask is already not the most appropriate choice when trying to stay safe as it does not filter out all types of particulates. A medic’s life is at risk already if they are wearing a surgical mask, so on top of this if a surgical mask is put to use long after its expiration date then it is futile and dangerous. When a surgical mask is put on, it filters out droplets and fluids and keeps on doing so for as long as it is donned. But gradually the filter starts to wear out and eventually it just becomes a piece of fabric with no protection to offer.

How important is it to change your surgical mask?

Besides the fact that an individual’s life will be in peril if they aren’t changing their surgical masks—they will also experience other drawbacks. Surgical masks become soggy and dirty and extremely hard to breathe in when used for too long. A user may also be exposed to irritation, acne, or skin infection because the mask becomes contaminated and your skin starts absorbing these contaminants. Moreover, reusing an old surgical mask will do a person more harm and no good at all, as these masks are disposable and meant to be discarded.

There are also specific guidelines for a person to help determine when the time has come to let go of their surgical mask. For instance, if a surgical mask is brand new but it gets damaged even a tiny bit, it is not fit for use anymore. Similarly, if a person wears a new surgical mask and is then exposed to an extremely dirty environment or is working in one such place then they should change their masks more frequently than to a person working in a safer or indoor environment.

Conclusion

Surgical masks, both medical and non-medical should be discarded after each use. Changing surgical masks is crucial to maintain hygiene and also to ensure the safety of the user. When surgical masks are used past their life, they become vain, dirty, and soggy. These masks are marketed as a disposable product and so are fit for one-time use only.

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