A surgical mask is a loose-fitting type of personal protective equipment (PPE) which helps to prevent the spread of respiratory infections. The fabric covers the nose and mouth and loops around the ears. Surgical masks are a barrier method which provides a reasonable degree of protection for health care workers and patients against respiratory droplets.
What are Surgical Masks?
Surgical masks are so-called as they are worn by medical workers in the operating theatre. Their core purpose is to contain the spread of germs from the medical staff onto the patient. Additionally, these types of masks, along with single-use cloth facial masks, are readily available in countries where air pollution levels are high. It is not uncommon to see civilians wearing surgical masks on their daily commute.
In order to provide the best protection, the CDC recommends that surgical masks feature several elements. They should have an adjustable nose bridge to ensure a closer fit as well as earloops to secure the mask around the ears.
Surgical masks are designed to be resistant to fluids and will protect the wearer against droplets, splashes and sprays of bodily or harmful substances. At the same time, they protect the patient from any respiratory emissions from the wearer. Although surgical masks are not as effective at capturing airborne particles as N95 masks, they do offer adequate protection against respiratory droplets.
Surgical masks are cleared by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration). They are not subject to as thorough testing as the N95 respirator.
Limitations of Surgical Masks
Whilst surgical masks are effective in helping to curb the spread of COVID-19, they do have limitations and are deemed overall less effective than the N95 mask. Unlike the N95 respirator, a surgical mask will not provide an almost-complete level of protection against other airborne particles. Furthermore, surgical masks are loose-fitting and do not hug the skin in the same way that an N95 is designed to. Surgical masks are also subject to leakage when the wearer inhales.
In order to improve the efficiency of a surgical mask, an assessment of the work environment should be performed. If chemical hazards are present, surgical masks will not prove effective.
How to wear a Surgical Mask
A surgical mask may be worn by any person over the age of 2, providing that they do not have breathing problems. If the wearer does have any respiratory issues they should consult medical advice first.
As with N95 respirators, surgical masks are manufactured to be disposable. The CDC recommends disposing of a mask after each encounter with a patient. Studies have not yet confirmed whether it is safe to wash a surgical mask. They were designed as single-use devices, and so it is best to heed formal advice. Before tossing a used surgical mask in the bin, the wearer should roll it in a clean tissue or wrap in a plastic bag first.
Credentials of Surgical Masks
Surgical Masks are certified as follows:
- China YY 0469
- USA ASTM F2100
- Europe: EN 14683
Surgical mask standards have requirements for capturing virus-sized particles (0.1 microns). However, the standards vary by region.