Should you be using a carbon filter with your surgical mask?

Between N95 masks, KN95 masks, surgical masks, and reusable cloth masks, the confusion about face masks is always present this year. Many of these face masks, particularly 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, were the target of a lot of people in the United States who began to buy them in bulk and wholesale at the beginning of the year.

Now, it’s very hard to find them for sale even online, as they’re being prioritized for healthcare workers in the USA. This is because they’re considered the best face mask for virus protection, with the best antiviral properties. Anyone who uses them is having the highest level of protection to come from a face mask.

For this reason, people are looking now for alternatives for them and their kids. Are carbon filters a good addition to your face mask? Let’s discuss this.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks, or also known as medical face masks, are disposable face masks with the main function of being a physical barrier between the harmful particles present in the environment and the wearer’s mouth and nose. They can be used in different types of medical procedures, including dental and surgical ones, and are tightly regulated for it. They’re not the same as N95 respirators, but both are disposable face masks that can be worn with face shields.

They’ve also been called ‘regular’ face masks by the general public, but not any face mask can be used as a surgical mask, as the latter are tightly regulated for medical use in healthcare settings where fluids can’t be released into the air. The varying levels of thickness in which they come represent varying levels of protection and breathability.

They are disposable face masks that have been created and designed to protect the wearer from fluids in the form of droplets, sprays, splashes or splatter, or any other form they can come in. The goal is to prevent the fluids from reaching the mouth and nose of the wearer since they can carry very dangerous pathogens like viruses or bacteria, which lead to serious health conditions. When inhaled, infection can happen, and the person can develop a disease like COVID-19.

The mask also works the other way around, preventing the fluids from the wearer, which are released when they breathe, talk, sneeze, or cough, from being released into the environment. In many situations, environments in healthcare centers need to be sterile, like during surgeries or when treating an immunocompromised patient, among others.

Surgical masks, besides working as a physical barrier, can also filter out some particles from the air. But they can only filter out larger particles, unlike N95 masks which can filter out smaller ones like dust, smoke, or bioaerosols. For this reason, surgical masks can’t offer too much virus protection, and their antiviral properties are lower than those offered by N95 masks, which can filter out the flu virus or the coronavirus. Surgical masks are also more loose-fitting than N95 respirators, which leaves room for leakage of unfiltered air that can be inhaled.

Since this is a disposable face mask, they can only be worn for a determined period, and have to be discarded after they’ve been used. They should also be discarded if they become wet or damaged, or if the person is having difficulty breathing with them on. Before and after handling them, washing your hands is recommended.

Carbon filters: how do they work?

Activated carbon is a substance that is used for filtering out impurities in many different ways. It works through a process called ‘adsorption’, where pollutant molecules in a fluid are trapped inside the pore structure of the carbon. This process is often used to purify water, air, and gas processing. Other applications include respirator masks, in cigarette filters, the purification of sugarcane, and the recovery of precious metals.

The carbon particles provide a large surface of porous structure that offers the contaminants a large exposure to the active sites in the filter material. Around 450 g of activated carbon has a surface area of 100 acres approximately. Typically, the size of particles that can be removed with a carbon filter ranges from 0.5 to 50 microns, depending on the filter description.

In air purifiers, carbon filters are used to absorb and remove particles from the air. The airborne particles stick to the filter when they react chemically with the carbon inside it. These types of filters are used to filter allergens like mold, smoke, dust, or chemicals in the air.

Some face masks have been designed to come with a filter of this kind, which is replaceable, that helps to remove bacteria from the inhaled air, and also helps to absorb certain particles from the surface of the face mask. They act primarily to purify the air, but they don’t do much to increase the filtration of viruses.

Should carbon filters be used with surgical masks?

Surgical masks don’t come with carbon filters, and they shouldn’t be modified in any way, as this can negatively affect their function and erase their sterility. However, carbon filters can be added to other types of face masks, like the reusable fabric ones the general public has been using this year.

Homemade and mass-produced fabric masks have been sold online with carbon and other types of filters, marketed as being able to improve the efficacy of the mask for protection against a larger number of particles than the mask alone. Even though health experts confirm that this is true, they have been recommending to be careful. Many of the filters used, like the carbon filters or HEPA filters, are used for air filtration devices, but their use in a face mask is yet to be evaluated.

According to May Chu, a clinical professor at Colorado School of Public Health Anschutz Medical Center teaching epidemiology, carbon and charcoal are meant to filter water, and it’s unknown whether or not breathing charcoal fragments can be good for the lungs.

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