Should you sterilize surgical masks for reuse?

Surgical masks

The purpose of a surgical mask is to protect the wearer from inhaling harmful airborne particles. Dirt, pollutants, contaminants, bacteria, and mist are some harmful airborne particles that could pose a threat to an individual's health, and the surgical masks block them from entering into a person’s body. 

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals use surgical masks to keep them safe while treating patients who have been infected by contagious diseases. Medical mask, face mask, and procedural mask are some other terms used for surgical masks. Surgical masks have been manufactured for healthcare professionals, but the public can use it as well.

Decontamination of surgical masks

It has become a compulsion for everyone to use N95 respirators and surgical masks after the pandemic began. There are different types of masks and respirators, and every mask or respirator has a specific purpose. When the pandemic began, healthcare officials recommended the public to wear masks to keep them safe from this fatal pandemic.

Because of the fear of the pandemic, a plethora of people bought N95 masks in large amounts. Because of this act, there has been a severe shortage of surgical masks and N95 respirators. Therefore, it has gotten hard for an individual to purchase N95 respirators and surgical masks. Some masks that are imported from China do not adequately protect the wearer.

Therefore, it has been urged to use masks that are made in the United States; this is because the quality of respirators and masks of China is lamentable. During a fatal pandemic, a shortage of such crucial Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) puts millions of lives at risk. The government must manufacture as many masks as possible; this is because respirators save lives.

Doctors, nurses, people, and other healthcare professionals are in severe need of masks. The FDA has recommended the public to wear surgical masks because they are still available, and surgical masks somewhat protect a person from inhaling harmful airborne particles. Although N95 respirators are better, the FDA recommended surgical masks for the public.

The FDA recommended doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to use N95 respirators because they keep an individual safer than surgical masks. Another reason is that healthcare professionals come in contact with infected patients a lot because they treat and take care of patients. Therefore, healthcare professionals must use N95 respirators to treat patients.

Chemicals have not been considered suitable to be used on masks for decontaminating it since chemicals have a lot of dangerous carcinogens. Therefore, it is not a safe method for decontaminating a respirator. A study was conducted by The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, where they decontaminated a mask by using a reprocessing method.

The FFP2 face masks were decontaminated by using a hydrogen peroxide process once or twice. Moreover, this process ought to be done for a short time. The face masks decontaminated and retained their shape for filtering out harmful airborne particles after decontamination because of using this method.

Although it is a safe and quick process for decontaminating an N95 respirator, the wearer would need heavy equipment and complex devices and chemicals for carrying out this procedure. Therefore, this procedure has been recommended for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, and that is why it has not been recommended for the public.

Dry heat is the most common procedure for the public to decontaminate an N95 respirator and surgical mask; this is because the public does not require complex devices and chemicals to decontaminate a face mask by using this procedure. Furthermore, it is a safe procedure for decontaminating a face mask. 

There is limited evidence on whether it is good to decontaminate a surgical mask or not. The decontamination of surgical masks or N95 respirators has been urged only when there is an acute shortage of surgical masks and N95 respirators. The demand for surgical masks has risen as a result of COVID-19.

Surgical masks can be sterilized, but it has been urged only when the shortage of N95 respirators has risen to a great extent. A study was conducted, which showed that dry heat at 60 celsius (60°C) and 70 celsius (70°C) for one hour can decrease the magnitude of the H1N1 indicator virus and can kill different types of bacteria that cause respiratory diseases.  

Furthermore, the study showed that the shape and the appearance of the surgical masks or N95 respirators did not change if we heated them for one, two, or three hours. After heating the N95 respirator, the filtration efficiency of the N95 respirator was around 98 percent, which is a good filtration efficiency; this means that the N95 respirator could filter 98 percent of harmful airborne particles after being heated.

After heating the surgical masks for one, two, and three hours, the filtration efficiency of surgical masks also got better, and it was around 97 percent; this means that the surgical masks could filter out 97 percent harmful airborne particles. This method can be used by an individual if they are about to run out of surgical masks or the N95 respirators.

Conclusion

Yes, surgical masks can be sterilized and should be decontaminated if the need arises. Using dry heat is a method for decontaminating surgical masks for the public, and processing surgical masks through hydrogen peroxide is another way, which is a complex way of decontaminating surgical masks; this method is recommended for healthcare professionals since they have complex equipment.

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