In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) have released a series of guidelines for public safety. Many of these guidelines are related to behavioral changes, such as social distancing, limiting exposure to crowds, and washing hands more frequently. However, they also relate to the use of masks. More specifically, the CDC has provided specific directives for using and reusing ASTM Level 3 surgical masks.

So, what are ASTM Level 3 surgical masks? What does ASTM stand for? How do these masks differ from other types of surgical masks? Can these masks be used more than once? Finally, what are the CDC’s guidelines for using and reusing ASTM Level 3 surgical masks? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s take a closer look at what ASTM is and how it regulates surgical masks:

What is ASTM?

ASTM stands for the American Society for Testing and Materials. Though it has “American” in its name, ASTM is an international organization dedicated to establishing voluntary technical standards for various processes, products, and materials. Thus, ASTM is one of the most trusted resources when it comes to safety equipment, including surgical masks. 

While ASTM is not affiliated with the CDC, both organizations work to ensure that the best materials are available to secure public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. ASTM uses resources and studies from the CDC when designating certain safety standards, while the CDC looks to ASTM to establish standards for businesses and manufacturers to follow when producing health and safety-related products. This means that both ASTM and the CDC play a vital role in the fight against Coronavirus at the national and international levels.

This brings us to the issue of masks. While the CDC recommends the use of masks, there are various kinds of face coverings that can protect against COVID-19. However, not all face coverings provide the same level of protection. In this guide, we will be taking a closer look at the ASTM Level 3 surgical mask, which is one of the more common and effective masks available to consumers. 

What are ASTM Level 3 Surgical Masks?

ASTM designates three levels for mask safety. Level 1 is considered a low barrier of protection, Level 2 is a moderate barrier of protection, and Level 3 is a high barrier of protection. These levels can apply to different kinds of masks. However, most surgical masks (by definition) provide a Level 3 barrier of protection. So what exactly does Level 3 protection mean?

Level 3 means that a mask is multi-layered and provides a tighter fit around the mouth and nose. A mask with multiple protective layers not only repels fluids, but it also absorbs particles of varying sizes. While an ASTM Level 3 surgical mask cannot completely eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, it will greatly reduce the risk of breathing in COVID-19 particles or coming in contact with fluids laden with the virus. 

Though ASTM Level 3 surgical masks don’t eliminate all risk, they are one of the best options on the market. Level 2 masks increase the risk of allowing fluids to reach your mouth or nose, while Level 1 masks provide minimal protection when compared with higher level masks. That said, any mask — when combined with social distancing and proper hygiene — will greatly reduce the risk of catching the COVID-19 virus.

CDC Guidelines Regarding ASTM Level 3 Surgical Masks

While the CDC has not mandated that masks be worn in public nationwide, it has strongly recommended that people wear masks when leaving the house or interacting with other people. In fact, the CDC has released multiple statements and guidelines regarding face coverings and surgical masks as new information comes to light. Here are some of the most important recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention:

Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19 Patients Should Wear Masks

“The role of facemasks is for patient source control, to prevent contamination of the surrounding area when a person coughs or sneezes.  Patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should wear a facemask until they are isolated in a hospital or at home. The patient does not need to wear a facemask while isolated.” 

The Function of Medical-Grade Masks

“Medical masks reduce the transfer of saliva and respiratory droplets to others and help block blood and other potentially infectious materials from the skin, mouth, or nose of the wearer. Medical masks may or may not have some level of fluid-resistance and do not seal tightly to the wearer’s face. They have multiple layers of different nonwoven fabric materials, which are fused together. They are available in different thicknesses and with different abilities to protect from contact with splashes and droplets. They are designed for single-use and will deteriorate with prolonged use, exposure to moisture, and exposure to standard levels of disinfection such as chemicals, heat, and radiation. EU MDD Directive 93/42/EEC Category III or equivalent, EN 14683 Type II, IIR, ASTM F2100 minimum Level 1, or equivalent are indicated for use for direct clinical care of patients with COVID-19.”

In other words, the CDC recommends that patients and clinicians use a minimum of Level 1 surgical masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As previously stated, Level 1 is the minimum protection recommended by both the CDC and ASTM. Level 2 surgical masks and above are preferred.

The Shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

It’s important to note that the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which includes ASTM Level 3 surgical masks, has only exacerbated the spread of COVID-19. As a result, the CDC has adjusted its stance on wearing masks for the average consumer. To ensure that medical professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic have access to the best PPE, the CDC recommends that younger, healthier people wear reusable cloth masks. While these do not provide the same level of protection, they do help slow the spread of the virus while saving the higher-grade protective equipment for the people who need it most.

Extended Use of ASTM Level 3 Surgical Mask Guidelines

The shortage of PPE has also led many patients, medical professionals, and consumers to extend the use or reuse face coverings, including ASTM Level 3 surgical masks. However, according to the CDC, “extending [the] use of medical masks for one HCW [healthcare worker] to use on multiple patients with COVID-19 (multiple single-rooms when seen in succession or cohort of patients) during a single shift” is not “consistent with standard practice and therefore not recommended.”

Nonetheless, the overwhelming caseload has put masks in limited supply, forcing single-use masks to be extended over multiple shifts. To deal with this issue, the CDC submitted the following guidelines to healthcare professionals:

  • If a mask becomes wet or visibly damaged, it should be removed and discarded using standard protocols.
  • If a mask is removed for speaking or while taking a break, it should be discarded.
  • Single-use masks should be used for a maximum of 6 hours before being discarded.
  • If absolutely necessary, extending the use of a mask for multiple patients should be prioritized over reusing masks.

Reuse of ASTM Level 3 Surgical Mask Guidelines

It’s important to note that there is a distinct difference between reusing a mask and extending the use of a mask. As previously mentioned, “extended use” refers to the use of one mask for a healthcare worker to treat multiple patients over the course of a single shift. Alternatively, the CDC defines mask reuse as “reprocessing and reusing medical masks for one HCW to use on multiple patients with COVID-19 for a limited time period (multiple shifts).”

Of the two options available to healthcare workers with limited PPE resources, “extended use” is the preferred option. Reusing masks over multiple shifts increases the risk of exposing healthcare workers and a greater number of patients to harmful particles. Thus, the CDC does not recommend reusing ASTM Level 3 surgical masks. 

If a facility has no choice but to reuse masks, the CDC offers the following recommendations:

  • There should be a standardized process in place to ensure the efficacy of reused and reprocessed masks.
  • Any mask that is to be reused should be closely inspected for damage, fluids, or other signs of contamination.
  • If a mask is damaged, soiled, or otherwise difficult to use, it should be discarded immediately.

Alternatives to ASTM Level 3 Surgical Mask Guidelines

In many cases, there may be no ASTM Level 3 surgical masks available to patients, healthcare workers, or consumers. In this case, the CDC lists several alternatives. These alternatives include “using 1) a face shield only or 2) a combination of a non-medical, approved fabric mask and face shield.” These alternatives do not meet the standards recommended by either the CDC or ASTM. As a result, they should be reserved for emergency purposes only.

If a situation occurs in which no masks are available, the CDC provides the following recommendations:

  • It is important to consider the limited ability of face shields to protect against liquid and particles.
  • If face shields are used, they should be standardized and made using fabrics and materials approved by the ASTM.
  • Cloth masks and similar face coverings should be removed and disposed of if and when they become moist or contaminated. 

CDC Guidelines for Non-Healthcare Workers

Naturally, the average consumer does not have to follow the same health and safety guidelines as a healthcare worker treating COVID-19 patients. That said, the CDC does recommend wearing masks in public. The more effective the mask, the better — to a degree. If you are in possession of N95 respirator masks, the CDC recommends that you donate them to a medical facility near you. N95 respirators provide the most protection against COVID-19, but they are in short supply.

While you are free to extend use or reuse ASTM Level 3 surgical masks, they will provide less protection over time. Moreover, you risk contaminating your mask every time you use it, which means you could be putting yourself or your loved ones in harm’s way by reusing your mask. So, while ASTM Level 3 surgical masks provide some of the best protection for non-healthcare workers, they are single-use only, so you will need to acquire them in bulk if you need to go out in public frequently. Otherwise, you’d be better served to use a double or triple-layer cloth mask that can be washed and reused.

It’s important to note that CDC recommendations have altered since the initial outbreak of the virus. Unfortunately, this has led to a distrust of CDC guidelines in some segments of the population. However, the CDC is actively working to keep the American people (and people around the world) safe with ever-changing data and research. So, even though these recommendations are subject to change, they should be followed in the meantime. 

Where Can I Buy an ASTM Level 3 Surgical Mask?

Currently, you can acquire an ASTM Level 3 surgical mask from multiple sources. They are available via Amazon, Walmart, and even pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS. Make sure that your purchase is labeled as Level 3. If it is not, you are likely buying a Level 1 face covering. While this is not a major concern for most young, healthy adults, it could be a huge issue for older adults or those who suffer from respiratory problems. So, make sure you check the packaging before finalizing your purchase.


The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is doing everything in its power to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, there’s only so much that the government agency can do until a vaccine is found. In the meantime, healthcare workers and the general public will need to follow the safety guidelines set out by the CDC and ASTM.

To recap, there are a few important CDC recommendations that could help save thousands of lives. First, social distancing and proper hygiene are the two most effective methods to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. Second, masks should be worn in all public places. If possible, you should wear a high-level form of PPE, like ASTM Level 3 surgical masks. However, you should not try to reuse single-use masks too often. Finally, remember that there is an international shortage of ASTM-approved PPE, so it’s best to reserve equipment like N95 respirators for healthcare workers.