What are the layers of a surgical mask?

Right now, medical supplies are some of the most talked-about topics as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks in particular are one of the most controversial points to come from this situation. As a respiratory virus, these products represent the most valuable resource for virus control, and their use has been encouraged since the earlier days of the pandemic.

Today, we’re talking about surgical masks in particular, the layers they must contain, and what functions they perform in the medical setting.

What is a surgical mask?

Among all the medical supplies necessary during the pandemic, including N95 masks, face shields, or KN95 masks, surgical masks are probably the most easily recognizable one. They’re a disposable face mask used in the healthcare field since before the pandemic, and is one of the most used items in this industry. Whether it’s for surgeries, dental or medical procedures, or for protection while treating a patient, these masks have one of the most versatile uses in the healthcare setting.

These masks primarily act as a physical barrier that is put between the person’s nose and mouth and the outside environment. These masks are made with a high fluid resistance, as we’ll explain later, that ensures neither solid or liquid materials released during the procedures healthcare providers are performing will penetrate the mask and be in contact with the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. This prevents diseases that can be transmitted when the materials released are contaminated.

Surgical masks also have certain filtering properties, which don’t surpass those in N95 masks. Unlike the latter, surgical masks only protect against bacteria, while N95 masks can filter out a wide range of airborne particles, including not only viruses like the flu virus, but also dust, smoke, pollen, and other irritants. This is why surgical masks are not considered a device for respiratory protection, while N95 respirators are, and these are the best face masks for virus protection during the pandemic due to these antiviral properties. Some popular models include 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210, 3M 1860, and 3M 8511.

These two functions not only help protect the wearer, but are also present the other way around. Another layer of the mask is intended to prevent the respiratory droplets the wearer might release from reaching the environment around them. These droplets can contain pathogenic microorganisms that can infect other patients or staff. But, it’s also important to contain the usually harmless microorganisms found in our respiratory tract, since these can cause infections in the surgical wound or on immunocompromised patients.

The layers of a surgical mask

Surgical masks are pieces of medical equipment that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to be marketed as such, they must pass certain tests and evaluations, and be given the approval from this entity to be used in healthcare settings.

In general, surgical masks must contain at least these three layers to perform the functions cited above:

  •       An internal absorbent layer, which catches all the moisture the wearer releases while they talk, breathe, sneeze, or cough. This prevents the wearer from contaminating a sterile field in certain medical settings.
  •       A middle filtering layer, which can filter out particles with a large size.
  •       An outer fluid-repellent layer, which offers a high level of fluid resistance that can prevent the liquids released in the environment from penetrating the mask and being in contact with the wearer’s face.

The levels of efficacy of these masks will vary depending on the model and manufacturer, and will reflect on the protection they can provide. There are also different levels when it comes to the fluid resistance and efficacy as a protective barrier these masks can offer, and these are established by the American Society for Testing and Materials in the United States. There are three levels according to them, with the level 1 being the least protective and the level 3 being the most protective.

After being manufactured, as we mentioned, surgical masks have to be sure to meet the standards set for them before being released into the market. If anyone uses a surgical mask that doesn’t work properly, they can be putting themselves and other people at risk.

As medical devices, they have to go through the FDA to be tested and they can then certify whether or not they qualify as a surgical mask. The five main tests performed on them are:

  •       Fluid resistance
  •       Bacteria filtration efficacy in vitro
  •       Particle filtration efficacy
  •       Breathing resistance
  •       Flammability


Should I be using a surgical mask?

Right now, many medical supplies are critical for the protection of healthcare workers. Surgical masks are one of them, and along with other important parts of the personal protective equipment needed by frontline workers, they have been scarce since the pandemic began, with shortages being reported all over the USA.

Hospitals and large healthcare centers need to buy these items in bulk and wholesale to protect their workers, but they’ve been so highly requested, its’ very difficult to find them for sale at the moment.

To make sure all of these supplies are reaching frontline workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends reusable cloth masks for the general public as the preferred face mask in situations where social distancing can be achieved. These masks are widely available in different sizes, so kids over the age of 2 can wear them as well, are completely cleanable and reusable, and can even be made at home with accessible materials. 

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