Chances are, you know some things about the masks worn by surgeons and other medical staff, but you may not know everything. This article will explain all there is to know about them.

The surgical mask is a face mask that health professionals use whenever they are performing a procedure. Its name comes from its main notable usage, which is performing surgery. When a doctor is cutting a patient open, they do not want to contaminate the patient or the equipment they’re using. The mask, worn over the surgeon’s mouth and nose, helps to prevent that.

This mask can be referred to as a medical face mask as well. This is due to the fact that not all uses involve surgery. They may also be referred to by whatever profession the wearer has. For example, when worn by a dentist, they may be referred to as a dental mask.

The History of the Surgical Mask

Putting a mask over one’s face is nothing new. We all know of the plague doctors from hundreds of years ago. These masks had dated science to them, such as the idea that spices and certain perfumes could prevent sickness.

With that said, the modern face mask is newer than you would think. The first surgeon to wear the face mask was Johann Mikulicz, who worked at the University of Breslau (which is in modern day Wroclaw, Poland.) This type of face mask was quite primitive, just using gauze and string. While this method of protecting your face was a little primitive, it did catch on.

By the early 1920s, two-thirds of surgeons wore masks. The mask’s popularity did increase in popularity during pandemics, such as the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. In fact, many people in authority as well as the population had to wear masks to stop the pandemic. In some cities, having to wear masks may have helped slow down the spread of the virus. With that said, some people did find the mandatory usage of it controversial. Sound familiar? History repeats itself, it seems.

The modern surgical mask hasn’t been around for a while. The 1960s brought the disposable mask, which is still used to this day. Yes, the modern surgical mask is relatively new, and there are plenty of people who are living today who remember a time before the modern mask. The modern surgical mask was much more comfortable, using a cup shape to fit over the face, and they used synthetic fabrics. These masks were disposable because of those fabrics, which would deteriorate as they were being used.

This wasn’t the only surgical item that became disposable, with other items, such as needles, following suit. People realized that the best way to sterilize surgical equipment was to wear or use it once, then get rid of it. Even if you wash the medical equipment, just one improper washing is all it takes for the mask not to be sterile any longer.

These masks overtook the cotton mask, which was reusable. Some studies had conflicting information over which was better, with some studies saying the disposable mask was better. However, these studies tended to omit reusable masks. Some studies said that cotton masks were better as long as you washed them.

In some cultures, it’s common to see surgical masks being worn in the public, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. One good example is Japan, a country where many of its citizens wore masks due to previous pandemics. For some citizens, the face mask is even a part of fashion, with designs printed on them.

More on surgical masks and the Coronavirus disease in a little bit.

How Does the Surgical Mask Work?

In order to understand how the surgical mask works, we need to look at its materials. You may notice that it has two sides. One side is darker in color, being green or dark blue. Meanwhile, the other side is white.

The darker side is intended for outward use. It's made from a layer that repels fluids. If any particles come towards the face, that material helps to get them away from you.

Meanwhile, the white part of the surgical mask is made from absorbent materials. Should the wearer speak, cough, or sneeze, the material will absorb anything that comes out of their nose or mouth.

The wearer should make sure that the outer part is worn outwards, and vice versa. Improper wearing may make the mask ineffective, which defeats the purpose of wearing them.

These masks help to protect from large particles, which tend to be viruses. For small particles, you may have a little less luck when it comes to filtering them out. With that said, these masks are usually worn in rooms designed to be as sterile as possible.

The Surgical Mask Vs. Other Masks

When it comes to facemasks, it can be a little confusing to figure out the difference between the surgical mask and other masks you may find. Let’s explain the differences.

Surgical Mask

This mask is designed to protect against big droplets, splashes of liquid, and droplets that come from the mouth of the wearer. These masks are regulated by the FDA, or another governing body, and are typically worn by healthcare staff.

These masks can protect wearers by making a barrier, repelling any liquids or body fluids that may have a virus in them.

These masks are disposable and are not meant to be washed. Once the mask starts to look deformed or is wearing down, dispose of it. Also, wearers must not touch the mask while wearing it. If they do touch it, their hands need to be cleaned.

Other reasons for disposing of the masks include if the mask is dirty, wet, has blood or other bodily fluids on it, or it’s hard to breathe. Dispose of the mask by not touching it and making sure you wash your hands afterwards.

N95 Respirator

This is quite similar to the surgical mask. Both resist fluids, filter large particles, and are intended for disposal upon use. The main difference is the design, with the respirator fitting tightly over one’s face to filter particles even more. The mask does this through its edges, which seal one’s mouth and nose.

Surgical Masks and COVID-19

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are wearing surgical masks, not just health care staff.

These disposable masks have not been approved by the FDA to protect against COVID-19, but they may help by filtering large droplets. For professional health care staff, the N95 mask is a better choice. However, there are shortages of them. Should one not be available, using a surgical mask can be a decent alternative.

At this time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any type of surgical mask specifically for protection against the coronavirus, but these masks may provide some protection when N95 masks are not available.

Ordinary Face Mask

This is a face mask that the general public wears, with their popularity increasing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These may be homemade or bought at a store, and they are not regulated by the FDA or a similar body.

This face mask isn’t intended for use by health care staff or a health care patient, but for those who are asymptomatic and are trying to avoid spreading their illness. Asymptomatic people do not show any signs of their illness, but may spread it through speaking.

These masks do need to be washed regularly and it may feel uncomfortable to wear it after a while due to the fact when you breathe, moisture accumulates.

Like most masks, you need to avoid touching it if you can, and you should wash your hands when you do touch it. These masks do need regular sanitation and washing as well. Using a face mask and not cleaning it regularly can make the mask useless.

Wearing a Surgical Mask

When you want to put on a surgical mask, or any face mask for that matter, it’s important for you to know how to do it. Many people do not know how to wear one properly. Here’s a short guide.

Make sure your hands are cleaned. Use hand sanitizer, or wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
When you take the mask out, inspect it. There shouldn’t be any tears or any holes. Look at both sides carefully, and if you see any defects, throw it away.

Figure out the top from the bottom of the mask. The top will have an edge that’s stiffer and bendable. It can change to fit the shape of your nose.
Then, figure out the front from the back. The front of your mask should be the side that is darker, while the white part is meant to touch your face.

Put on the mask. Depending on what type of surgical mask you have, putting it on can be a little different. For an ear loop mask, pick it up by the loops and put each loop around the ear. If it has a tie, put the mask to the level of your nose and tie it over your head’s crown. Use a bow to secure it.
Make sure the stiff part is over your nose and the bottom of the mask covers your chin and mouth. Once you do that, then the mask is worn.
When you’re done with the mask, it’s time to remove it. Whenever you’re about to remove it, clean your hands through proper hand washing methods. Do not touch the mask’s front, as it 
has contamination. Instead, touch the ties or ear loops. Use those to dispose of the mask. Then, wash your hands again.

Regulations of Surgical Masks

As we mentioned a few times in this article, surgical masks are regulated by the FDA and other government bodies. When a company has manufactured a mask, they must have a demonstration to prove their mask is effective. Testing the mask helps the company to prove that their filter can repel or absorb particles.

In Europe, the masks are regulated by the European Economic Area, or EEA. Like the FDA, the manufacturer has to go through different processes in order to prove its effectiveness.

Wearing Masks in the Age of​ ​COVID-19

As we mentioned earlier, mask wearing during a pandemic is nothing new, and in some countries, the practice has been normalized through fashion and through public use. Due to COVID-19, wearing masks in public, including surgical masks, has skyrocketed.

For those who don’t work in the healthcare field, disposable masks can offer some protection, but proper wearing guidelines need to be followed. For example, disposing of the mask and proper hand washing.

Because there can be shortages of surgical masks, the public may benefit from wearing face masks instead. These are also effective when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Masks can be effective during a pandemic, but it is important that the wearer knows what the masks can prevent against, and how to wear them. Too many people think that the mask is an impenetrable shield and that they do not need to be disposed of or washed upon use. This can be a costly mistake that one should avoid if possible.


The surgical mask has a fascinating history and is a proper tool of medical doctors everywhere. When you’re wearing a mask during your job as a healthcare worker, you’re preventing yourself and your patient from contracting a disease. While not foolproof, it does offer protection and is a part of a health care professionals arsenal when it comes to sanitizing the surgical and medical process.

With that said, should you be an ordinary citizen, regular face masks can be better for you. Just make sure you are washing them and following sanitation guidelines. By knowing all there is to know about these masks, you can go far with what you can do with them.