What is PPE?

We’ve been hearing and reading on the news and online about this term during the last nine months of our lives. PPE stands for personal protective equipment, and it has been the center of discussion during the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people began to buy these items in bulk and wholesale, but now it’s very difficult to find them available for sale. Healthcare centers have been struggling to get enough PPE to face the virus safely, but shortages of these items have been affecting them for the last several months. To learn more about what PPE means, and what are some of the most used items at the moment, keep reading this article. 

PPE is an acronym for ‘personal protective equipment’, and based on the definition given by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an institution in the USA, it’s the “equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses”. These are injuries and illnesses that can be the result of being in contact with several different hazards in the workplace, which can vary from one job to the other.

People working in the electrical field, for example, will need a specific type of PPE to prevent injuries that can be the result of electrical hazards, while radiology technicians will need protection against radiation. Other types of hazards can be chemical, biological, physical, and mechanical hazards.

According to OSHA, “all personal protective equipment should be safely designed and constructed, and should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion. It should fit comfortably, encouraging worker use. If the personal protective equipment does not fit properly, it can make the difference between being safely covered or dangerously exposed”.

In medical workplaces, PPE is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “a barrier between an individual's skin, mouth, nose, or eyes, and viral and bacterial infections”. Any PPE used in the medical field, including surgical and dental procedures, has to be regulated by the FDA.

Medical PPE will vary depending on the situation and procedure it’s needed for just as much as PPE can vary from one job to the other. Different risks can come from different situations, for example, the protection needed to treat a COVID-19 patient isn’t the same as the risks that come from treating a patient with diphtheria. In medical settings, these are the most common pieces of PPE used during the pandemic:

N95 masks and other respirators

Respirators are masks or mask-like devices that protect the wearer from inhaling harmful particles that may be in the air. They contain a filter material that traps these particles. They’re used in work settings where respiratory hazards, particles that can be detrimental to the person’s health when inhaled, are present.

N95 masks are a type of respirator that, according to the classification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency in the United States in charge of regulating respirators, can filter out at least 95% of all the airborne particles that don’t contain oil. This includes smoke, dust, and certain bioaerosols like the flu virus or the coronavirus.

They’re considered to be the best masks for virus protection since they offer great antiviral properties. Some of the most popular models include the 3M 8210 or the 3M 8511, which are 3M N95 masks.

Other respirators, regulated under different standards, include KN95 masks or FFP2 respirators, considered to be equivalent to N95 respirators.


Gowns are meant to protect the worker from infections or illnesses that may come from being in contact with fluids or solid material that can be potentially infected. This also works the other way around, preventing the wearer from transferring pathogens to vulnerable patients, like immunocompromised ones. They’re part of the infection-control strategy used in healthcare centers. Other terms used to refer to medical gowns include surgical gowns, isolation gowns, non-surgical gowns, operating room gowns, and procedural gowns.

Surgical or medical masks

Surgical masks, also known as medical masks or ‘regular’ face masks, are loose-fitting disposable face masks that offer mainly physical protection against fluids in the form of sprays, droplets, splashes, or splatter. They are a physical barrier between the wearer and these fluids, and vice-versa. This prevents healthcare professionals from releasing their fluids into the environment, which is important when treating immunocompromised patients or when performing certain surgical or medical procedures. As a filter, they can only trap large particles, unlike N95 masks.

Goggles or face shields

Eyewear is often used to protect the eyes from being in contact with any potentially infected fluids. Goggles may provide the most reliable eye protection from any splashes, sprays, or droplets that come from respiratory fluids. They can be made to reduce fogging and to fit every individual worker. Many of them can adequately fit prescription glasses, but to be effective, goggles need to fit tightly around the corners of the eyes on the brow area.

Another eye protection item is the face shield, which can be used as an alternative to goggles for infection control. Unlike goggles, face shields protect the entire face and not only the eyes. However, they’re not recommended as a substitute for face masks on their own for protection against COVID-19.

These items need to be reserved for healthcare professionals who are at the frontline of the pandemic. The general public is urged to use reusable cloth masks, which are available for sale in many places, including masks in a smaller size for kids. Anyone who uses them is doing their part to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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