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What Exactly is a Medical Face Mask?

COVID-19 has resulted in a true pandemic, and one to which everyone is believed to be susceptible. As a preservative measure, the CDC, the WHO, and governments across the world are urging people to wear a mask as one of many precautions to help prevent the spread of this coronavirus.

However, some people still don’t know what mask they are supposed to wear. Lately, the names of many different types of face masks have been tossed around, but aside from medical personnel, these names may be largely unfamiliar to the public. This has led (understandably) to some confusion. 

We’re all stuck between a puzzle of vocabularies like surgical masks, medical masks, dust masks, N95 respirators, non-medical masks, and filtering facepiece (FFP). Individuals who do have masks, sometimes don’t fully understand what type of mask they possess and when they should or shouldn’t be using it. By acquainting ourselves with mask names and recommended uses, we enable our communities to better understand how, when, and where to implement them.

Different types of medical face masks

During these times, a face mask is an important and potentially life-saving piece of equipment. For medical professionals, it is personal protective equipment (PPE) that will be used in the frontline to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The purpose of a medical face mask is to prevent respiratory viruses from reaching the wearer. The infections exist mainly in saliva droplets. These travel via a cough or sneeze, or even when a person is speaking or singing. There is even some evidence that these droplets can circulate through indoor ventilation systems, causing an increase in spreading when an infected person spends time in the same room as multiple others. 

On the other hand, medical masks often fit snugly around the mouth and nose, which will ideally prevent droplets from an infected wearer from spreading to their surrounding environment. Furthermore, a mask may minimize hand-to-face contact, which is also believed to be responsible for spreading of the virus.

Identifying medical face masks

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A medical face mask is a piece of medical equipment covering your mouth, nose, and chin. The primary purpose is to inhibit a respiratory infection or other infective agent from transferring to a patient from their medical personnel. It may also contribute to the protection of the healthcare workers, themselves, to an extent. A medical mask, also sometimes called a surgical mask, is best reserved for healthcare workers during this time for exactly those reasons.

An N95 respirator or filter facepiece (FFP) is a face mask designed to protect the wearer from airborne contaminants. Both small and large particle droplets of an infective agent are prevented to a high degree from passing to the wearer. This mask is also considered personal protective equipment and is best reserved for health workers only. Under this type of face cover we have valved respirators, which experts do not recommend as a means of source control. This is because these respirators do not prevent the release of exhaled respiratory particles from the wearer into the environment.

non-medical face mask is any homemade or DIY mask replacement, any mask bought from local retailers that is made of cloth materials like textiles, fabric, and makeshift filters. Quality may not be standardized if they are made by different people. However, these masks provide a basic level of protection and are recommended for the general public, though not any healthcare personnel or patients who have access to medical-grade protective measures. 

When we go back to discussing medical masks there are mainly two types under this category of face coverings: 

1) Surgical masks
2) N95 respirators

The above face mask medical recommendations by the CDC are recommended for health workers only, but the N95 masks more so than garden-variety surgical ones.

Characteristics of surgical medical masks and N95 respirators

In order to use each type of medical mask correctly (and avoid using one for everyday use that could be life-saving to hospital staff), it’s important to understand the characteristics of each one:

Surgical masks

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  • Fit loosely on the wearer’s face. This creates a barrier between the face and the wearer’s immediate environment. They are made in different thicknesses and with varying abilities to protect you from contact with liquids. The level of thickness may affect your ability to breathe easily and the efficiency of the mask in protecting you.
  • Should be regulated under 21 CFR 878.4040 guidelines.
  • Are for personal use by an individual. They should not be shared under any circumstances.
  • Inhibit large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria). You must wear it properly. However, small particles may still penetrate through the surgical mask if the inner fabric layers are weak.
  • May also help prevent you from infecting others with your saliva or other respiratory secretions.
  • Are disposable. When you use it once, you should dispose of it properly. If the mask is damaged or you experience extreme difficulty breathing, dispose of your mask by its elastic loops immediately. Remember to wash your hands after disposing of it.

N95 respirators

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  • Block at least 95% of airborne particles in your immediate environment.
  • Fit around your face tightly to prevent inhalation of smaller infectious particles. These can spread through the air over long distances after an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • Are definite in shape. Therefore, people with facial hair (particularly beards) and children won’t get a perfect fit. These people may require special respirators called powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR).
  • Fall under the category of medical masks and therefore are not recommended to the general public. Health workers and patients have a much greater need for N95 respirators than the average citizen, especially when that citizen is following the recommended social distancing procedures.

What are some of the similarities between surgical masks and N95 respirators?

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), there are a few similarities between these two medical face masks:

  • They have passed testing for fluid resistance, filtration efficiency (particulate filtration efficiency and bacterial filtration efficiency), flammability, and biocompatibility.
  • They should not be shared or reused. After every use, they should be disposed of.

Medical face mask effectiveness

To determine different levels of effectiveness, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) classifies all face masks under three levels. They are:

  • ASTM Level 1 – Low fluid resistance
  • ASTM Level 2 – Moderate fluid resistance
  • ASTM Level 3 – High fluid resistance

Individuals use all the masks that lie under the above three levels for infection prevention. Wearing a medical face mask is among the CDC’s dictated safety and health precautions for all healthcare workers and coronavirus patients. Face masks’ medical effectiveness is determined by the ability to thwart the transmission of any respiratory germs, viruses, and bacteria.

Who should wear a medical face mask, and when?

According to the World Health Organisation, healthy people should wear a medical mask if they are taking care of COVID-19 patients. Also, one should wear a medical mask when experiencing symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, since the virus can be spread this way to people around you, even in the early stages of an infection where you may feel like your symptoms are allergy-related. 

Medical face masks should be reserved for those who really need them. These are health workers such as doctors, medical researchers, and nurses. Also, if you’re a COVID-19 patient, wearing a medical face mask is both advisable and considerate to those providing your care. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, medical face masks are running low in supply during these times. This is because there are not a large number of medical mask manufacturers and the validation process takes time. For instance, N95 respirators require specialized fit testing before they are approved for use. 

Another challenge is that these medical masks should not be reused. Therefore, steady production and supply are limited. Hoarding of face masks (and/or selling them at an extremely high mark-up) is not only unethical, it’s counterproductive to the well-being of your community.

At this time, the CDC recommends wearing non-medical face coverings (made of cloth) for healthy members of the public. This applies whenever you’re going out for essential shopping where other social distancing measures are challenging to maintain. A simple cloth mask provides diminished protection, but may still be life-saving nonetheless. As you make your homemade face covering, make sure you follow CDC guidelines

Parents and guardians, don’t make a face mask for your two-year-old or below, as the risk of suffocation is considered greater than the risk of infection under those circumstances. If you have breathing problems, a non-medical face mask made of cloth is the best for you. The CDC continues to emphasize that N95 surgical masks and other medical face masks are not for the general public. They should be reserved for medical responders, patients, and other health workers, which will ultimately benefit society as a whole.

Where do you buy or donate masks that fall under the medical mask category?

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Medical facilities around the globe are running short of medical face masks for both health workers and patients. This is because the number of patients is rising daily. If you would like to donate some masks or own a company that sews medical-grade face masks, you’re urged to reach out to local hospitals, where trained personnel will ascertain if the masks are viable or not. For ordinary non-medical face masks, there are people out there who cannot afford them. If you wish to help them with masks, you can simply make or buy some and then give them away with the help of a healthcare worker.

Wondering where to buy a face mask for yourself? Many local retailers and online stores are now selling masks in addition to their usual wares. Some even offer free delivery to your doorstep.

Going forward

Now that we understand what a medical face mask is and we know when and where to use them, as well as who should be using them, we as a global community need to adhere to the regulations dictated by the WHO and CDC regarding medical face masks. Educate your friends and family about medical face masks, the importance of wearing a face mask, and where to purchase or give out face masks. With the right information and knowledge, we can help defeat COVID-19 and help to stop the spread of this deadly virus.

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