What are surgical masks?
These are the typical blue and white face masks we see being used by healthcare providers, like doctors, nurses, dentists, and anyone who works in the healthcare field. Although they’re called surgical masks, they have other uses in different types of procedures, including medical and dental ones.
Their importance in these settings comes from them being able to repel the fluids that are expelled during these procedures. These materials can be contaminated, and it’s important to prevent any contact between them and the mouth and nose of the professional to prevent any potential diseases that can be transmitted this way.
The middle layer of these masks contain a filter, which has a limited activity to only large particles. This means they can filter out microorganisms like bacteria, which are large, but not viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus, since these are often airborne particles (those with a size of 0.3 micrometers or smaller).
Their inner layer is absorbent, and this helps the masks prevent the user from releasing any droplets containing microorganisms into the environment. During procedures like surgeries, it’s important to maintain the field sterile, and this ensures no contamination can happen.
Surgical masks are a type of disposable face mask, which means they shouldn’t be reused or shared with other people. After being used, or if the mask becomes damaged, visibly dirty, or wet, it should be removed carefully and discarded in the corresponding container. To prevent contamination of the mask or the hands, they should be handled by the ear loops or straps without touching the facepiece. After handling the mask, either to put it on, adjust it, or take it off, washing the hands is recommended.
What does the CDC say about the benefits of wearing surgical masks over others?
The CDC has an infographic on their website where they compare surgical masks with N95 masks in relation to their intended use and purpose. According to them, surgical masks are “fluid resistant and provide the wearer protection against large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids. Protects the patient from the wearer’s respiratory emissions.”
In turn, N95 respirators “reduce the wearer's exposure to particles including small particle aerosols and large droplets (only non-oil aerosols).”
This translates into surgical masks being the preferred choice for situations in which the main protection must be against hazardous fluids, like during surgeries, or when the patient needs to be protected from any microorganism the provider could be releasing. For example, immunocompromised patients can develop infections when in contact with usually harmless microorganisms released by people. These infections can also be developed during surgeries when the wound gets contaminated.
The importance of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 is a respiratory infection that gets transmitted from person to person by the release of respiratory droplets and aerosols that contain the virus. After being inhaled by a healthy individual, the virus colonizes the respiratory tract, causing damage to it while they do.
Most people develop very mild symptoms or can even be asymptomatic, while certain individuals with risk factors are at higher risk of developing severe forms of the disease that can be life-threatening. Even though they’re not the majority, they can lead to the collapse of healthcare centers when too many people are infected at the same time, with the patient influx surpassing the capacity of these facilities. This has already happened in the USA.
Since many people can be asymptomatic, but still be able to spread the disease, the use of face masks is very important for everyone. Masks not only protect the user, but also those around them by preventing the release of respiratory droplets that might contain the virus.
Other commonly used face masks during the pandemic and when to use them
The one mask you’ve probably heard about the most is the N95 respirator, and we already talked about it briefly earlier. They’re considered the best option for antiviral purposes, including COVID-19, in the healthcare field where exposure to viruses is much higher. In these settings, cloth or surgical masks won’t protect the wearer properly.
This high effectiveness for virus protection from the fact they can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air, due to the fact they’re not resistant to oil. Aside from viruses, they can filter out many other types of particles considered respiratory hazards in other work settings, such as dust or smoke, which is why they have multiple other uses. Some popular models include the 3M 8210, 3M 1860, or 3M 8511, all 3M N95 masks.
KN95 masks are also respirators with no oil resistance and a 95% filtering efficacy, making them also effective for filtering out non-oil based airborne particles. However, although they’re frequently mistaken with N95 masks, these are regulated by Chinese entities, while N95 masks are regulated by American ones.
Lastly, reusable cloth masks are some of the most widely used ones during the pandemic by the general public. This is according to the CDC, as they have been urging everyone to reserve all the medical-grade masks and equipment for frontline workers who are much more exposed to the virus. In daily public situations, where people can stay six feet apart from each other, these masks are considered enough protection, but in healthcare settings they wouldn’t be as effective.
Cloth masks can be found for sale very easily online or on physical stores, and there’s no need for people to buy them in bulk or wholesale because they’re cleanable and reusable. Plus, they can be made at home using accessible materials and following one of the many tutorials found online, with different designs and sizes for kids as well.