The United States has been facing the coronavirus pandemic for over eight months now, and face masks are currently part of our daily lives. The uncomfortable feeling of having a face-covering we once felt earlier in the year has been slowly decreasing, and these items are now our new normality, being as much part of our routines when leaving the house as our keys or our phones.
Surgical face masks, also known as medical masks, are some of the most used ones, along with the reusable cloth masks, KN95 masks, and the N95 respirators. A lot of questions come to mind when talking about these masks, so in this article, we’ll discuss the general aspects of surgical masks, the materials they’re made of, and the difference between this mask and other popular face masks.
Surgical masks: a brief explanation
Surgical face masks are loose-fitting disposable face masks that act mainly as a physical barrier between the hazardous particles in the environment and the wearer’s mouth and nose. Just like N95 masks, they’re disposable and shouldn’t be shared with other people, and can be worn with face shields to increase protection.
They’re commonly known as ‘regular’ face masks, but this doesn’t mean that any type of face mask can be used as a surgical face mask. They’re tightly regulated and are made with varying degrees of thickness, offering different levels of protection against liquids, and also affect the breathability of the face mask.
They’re designed to trap sprays, droplets, splashes, or splatter of fluids that may contain particles that are harmful to the body. This includes microorganisms like viruses and bacteria. They act as a barrier, preventing these particles from reaching the nose or mouth, which is the way of transmission for many of them, including the flu virus and the virus responsible for COVID-19. This barrier works both ways, preventing the wearer’s fluids from reaching others as well. As a filter, they can only trap large particles, unlike N95 respirators.
This way, surgical masks only work blocking large particles and fluids from entering the airways, but they don’t offer protection against smaller particles. They are also more loose-fitting, so leakage can happen, and the protection against harmful particles isn’t the highest.
They’re disposable face masks, so they should be discarded after being used for over 8 to 12 hours. They should also be removed if they become damaged or wet, or if the person is experiencing difficulty breathing with them. Before and after handling this face mask, just like every other type of face mask, washing your hands is recommended.
Material used in surgical face masks
Just like N95 respirators, surgical face masks use the popular non-woven fabric, also known as melt-blown material. This material offers better antiviral and bacterial filtration and also offers air permeability. It’s commonly obtained from polypropylene, but other sources include polycarbonate, polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyester. On average, each surgical mask needs 20-26 grams per square meter.
The process to obtain the 20 gsm mask material is called the “spunbond process”, which involves extruding the melted plastic in a web through which the strands will bond with each other as they get cooler. For 25 gsm fabric, a similar process involving melt-blown technology is used, where the plastic is extruded through a die with multiple small nozzles, becoming tiny fibers that bind together as they cool down.
Multiple layers make up the structure of a surgical mask, usually covering a layer of textile fabric with the non-woven material on both the outer and inner surfaces. The non-woven materials are made with three to four layers, and it’s cheaper and cleaner to make than other fabrics. The resulting disposable face masks are made with two layers of filter media, and the filtration level of the mask will depend on multiple factors, including the way it’s manufactured, the shape of the non-woven fibers, among others.
The masks are made using a machine line that assembles the layers by ultrasonically welding them, and then they stamp the nose strips, ear loops, and other attachments. The finished result is then sterilized before they get sent to the factory for packaging and distribution.
Difference between surgical masks and other masks
At the moment, the three most popular and widely used face masks for the coronavirus pandemic are N95 respirators, cloth masks, and surgical face masks. N95 masks are respirators according to the classification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which certifies inside the USA that these face masks can filter out 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the environment.
Unlike surgical masks, they offer a tight fit around the face, preventing any leakage from happening, and making sure all the air being inhaled is filtered through the mask. They’re the best face mask for virus protection and are prioritized to be used by healthcare workers. They can effectively filter out dust and smoke as well. Some of the most popular models include 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511.
Reusable cloth masks offer the least protection, but are the recommended ones by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be used by the general public, while medical-grade face masks like the surgical or N95 masks need to be reserved for first responders, healthcare workers, and other people at the frontlines.
Anyone who uses any type of face-covering, including kids with face masks in a smaller size, is doing their part to keep the vulnerable people in their communities safe. Plenty of options are available for sale online, with options to buy in bulk or wholesale too.