What types of masks are disposable?

What are disposable face masks?

Disposable face masks, as the name suggests, are face masks intended to be used only once, and then discarded properly. Most of them are designed for work-shifts of 8 to 12 hours, but they should be removed as soon as they become damaged or wet, or if the wearer is having difficulty breathing with them on.

These types of face masks are disposable because they’re made with materials that aren’t very durable and can’t endure most decontamination or cleaning methods. Most disposable face masks are made with a material called polypropylene, which is used to make non-woven fabric.

Disposable face masks can’t be shared with other people, and are intended for single-use. They should always be handled by the ear-loops or straps, never touching the inside or outside of the mask itself to prevent contamination. After its use, they should be removed by the ear-loops o straps and discarded in the corresponding area. Washing the hands before and after handling these masks, be it to adjust it, put it on, o remove it, is always recommended.

The two most widely used disposable face masks at the moment are the N95 respirators and the surgical masks. We’ll talk about them more in-depth later.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a series of recommendations and guidelines for decontamination of medical PPE (personal protective equipment), which includes certain disposable face masks. This is done to apply a practice they call ‘limited reuse’ of respirators when these supplies are scarce in healthcare facilities during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic we’re living in.

N95 respirators

They’re a type of disposable face mask, but they’re respirators. These are masks or mask-like devices that protect workers in certain industries from respiratory hazards. These are harmful particles that, when inhaled, can lead to severe health issues. Respirators trap these particles, preventing them from being inhaled by the wearer.

The name ‘N95’ comes from the NIOSH classification for respirators, considered to be the respirator filtration standard in the United States. This classification is based on a two-part system that names respirators taking into consideration two main properties found in them. The first one is the resistance to oil, indicated with the letters N, R, or P, meaning not resistant, somewhat resistant, or oil-proof respectively. The second one is the filtration rate, indicated with the numbers 95, 99, or 100%.

N95 masks are, therefore, respirators that can filter out at least 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, which are particles with a size as small as 0.3 micrometers. This makes them an effective face mask for particles like dust, smoke, or even microorganisms like the flu virus. They’re considered the best disposable face mask for virus protection due to this antiviral property. This is why they’ve been widely used in healthcare settings, along with face shields and goggles.

They’ve been hard to find for sale since the beginning of the pandemic, with healthcare centers struggling to buy them in bulk or wholesale, even in online stores. For this reason, the CDC has urged the general public to wear reusable cloth masks and leave these respirators for healthcare providers. Some of the most used N95 respirators are the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, both 3M N95 masks. If they’re not available in a healthcare facility, sometimes KN95 masks can be used in their place.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks might be the most widely recognized type of disposable face masks. We have mostly seen them being used in healthcare settings being worn by doctors, nurses, dentists, and other types of healthcare providers. They can also be known as medical or dental masks, and they’re specifically manufactured and regulated to be used in healthcare settings.

They offer two forms of protection, and the main one is acting as a physical barrier between the environment and the wearer’s nose and mouth. This way, during medical or surgical procedures in which potentially contaminated fluids can be released in the form of droplets, sprays, splashes, or splatter, they can’t reach the wearer’s mucous membranes in the nose and mouth, preventing the development of various diseases that can be spread this way.

The second form of protection they offer is as filters, but this activity is limited in them. Unlike N95 masks, surgical masks only filter out larger particles, which makes them not effective for virus protection. This is why the CDC has not recommended their use in healthcare settings specifically for protection against COVID-19, but they can substitute N95 masks when these aren’t available.

Both forms of protection work in the opposite direction as well, preventing the wearer’s fluids from being released into the air, which is important to maintain sterile fields. Therefore, surgical masks are used in surgeries or medical procedures to prevent contamination of the wound, or when treating immunocompromised patients to avoid them getting serious infections. 

Both surgical and N95 masks are usually made with the same material, polypropylene, which is why both are considered disposable face masks and can’t be reused under normal conditions. However, they offer very different types of protection, and therefore have different uses. But, they’re both medical-grade masks that need to be reserved for healthcare workers right now.

We urge our readers to make use of reusable cloth masks for daily protection, including kids over the age of 2 years old, combining them with social distancing and hygiene measures. This is how we can all help decrease the spread of COVID-19. 

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