Confused by the different types of face masks on the market and which one to buy? We’re here to help. Before you purchase a face mask for personal or workplace use, learn which type of face mask is best suited for your needs.
The Importance of Wearing Face Masks
Masks are key to suppressing virus transmission in the community and thus saving lives. This is because masks reduce potential exposure risk from an infected person whether they have symptoms or not. That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone (regardless if they are sick, or if they are healthy) wear a face mask in places where it can be hard to stay 6 feet or 1 meter away from others, such as public places.
This is due to recent studies showing that people may spread coronavirus even if they don’t have symptoms (called asymptomatic) or before they have symptoms (called pre-symptomatic). In fact, you might be the most contagious just before symptoms begin.
By wearing a mask, the wearer is protecting themselves and others from getting infected.
How a Face Mask Works
When someone speaks or sneezes, they spread tiny droplets with the virus into the surrounding air – that’s where face masks come into play. By covering your mouth and nose, a face mask blocks the release of virus-filled droplets into the air when you cough or sneeze- helping slow the spread of the virus.
To visualise droplets and aerosols, UNSW researchers used LED lighting system & a high-speed camera, filming people coughing and sneezing in different scenarios — using no mask, 2 different types of cloth masks, and a surgical mask.
Based on the results, it is clear that the type of face mask matters when it comes to stopping the spread of the virus. Watch the video below to see their experiment in action:
Different Types of Masks
There are several types of masks commonly recommended for protection against coronavirus: cloth masks, surgical or medical masks, and respirators.
Cloth or paper masks
Paper or cloth masks can be homemade or store bought, and are generally preferred because they are washable and reusable. While they are commonly recommended for public use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, the efficacy of these types of masks are difficult to ascertain due to the vast variety and quality of cloth masks in the market.
The Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG)’s response to “Are cloth face masks likely to provide protection against COVID-19?” concluded that cloth face coverings were effective in reducing source virus transmission, i.e., outward protection of others, but only when they are of optimal material and construction (high grade cotton, hybrid and multilayer) and fitted correctly and for source protection of the wearer.
Business Insider collected the latest research on the best and worst types of face masks, and ranked them (below). Based on the comparison table they collated, cloth face coverings are the least efficient in filtering large droplets and filtering aerosols.
Respirator masks offer the most protection against the coronavirus and other infectious diseases. Designed to fit tightly around the wearer’s face, respirators filter out over 95% of particles from the air breathed in by the wearer. There are several types of respirators with different filtration efficiencies, such as N95 (95% filtration), N99 (99% filtration), and N100 (99.97% filtration).
N95 respirator masks are commonly used by healthcare workers and front liners but are in short supply. Therefore, they are not recommended for general public use.
Medical masks are disposable covers usually worn by medical professionals as personal protective equipment (PPE) during surgeries or other procedures. They are often made of a combination of paper and plastics, and are usually light blue in color. Medical masks do not achieve a close seal to the wearer’s face, however they are useful in limiting the spread of particles or droplets from an infected person (such as cough or sneeze spray).
Medical masks are designed to protect against large respiratory droplets but don’t protect against smaller droplets. Therefore, they are effective for helping protect others around you if you are a carrier of the virus. Meant for single-use only, medical masks must be disposed of carefully after use and cannot be washed or re-used.
Medical Face Mask Standards and Rating Levels
Medical masks and respirators undergo different standards and regulations, depending on the geographical area to which they are supplied to. Medical masks in Europe must comply with the European Standard EN14683, which have three levels of bacterial filtration efficiency (Type I, Type II and Type IIR). In the US, medical masks must comply with ASTM standards, which have three levels of protection (from Level 1 (low risk of exposure to fluids) to Level 3 (high risk of exposure to fluids)).
The comparison chart below from Nelson Labs provides a quick overview of these two standards and what they test for.
ASTM Face Masks
The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) publish technical standards for products, materials, systems and the likes, and has defined more than 12,500 international standards to date. The three levels of ASTM face mask barrier protections are explained as follows:
ASTM Level 1 Face Masks offer low-level barrier protection for general use for low-risk, nonsurgical procedures and exams that do not involve aerosols, sprays and fluids. These are suitable as procedural masks during patient & staff isolation, to clean environments, processing departments, ER and in the ICU for bedside procedures where there is low risk of involving blood-borne pathogens or bodily fluids.
ASTM Level 2 Face Masks provide moderate-level barrier protection for low-to-moderate levels of aerosols, sprays and fluids. ASTM Level 2 Face Masks are suitable for healthcare use in procedures that involve light to moderate amounts of fluid, spray and/or aerosols. They can be used in low-risk clinical applications that do not involve blood-borne pathogens or bodily fluids. Level 2 face masks are sufficient to help enhance infection control and prevent the risk of cross-contamination.
ASTM Level 3 Face Masks provide maximum-level barrier protection for any situation that has the potential for exposure to heavy levels of aerosols, sprays and fluids. Face masks of this grade are ideal for healthcare professionals and hospital use where there is a high-risk of fluid exposure. Wearing this face mask properly with a close fit helps protect Operating Room (OR) staff against fluid transmission.
EN 14683 Face Masks
The other standard regulating face masks is the European Standard NF EN 14683. Other than regulating the design, production and performance requirements of medical face masks, this standard also regulates the bacterial filtering efficiency of medical face masks. To pass, EN14683 face masks must have a suitable microbial barrier and also be effective in reducing emissions from a nose or mouth of a carrier or a patient with clinical symptoms.
There are three different types of surgical masks that fall within the EN14683 rating, categorised mainly by their BFE (Bacterial Filtration Efficiency) and splash-resistance:
EN14683 Type I face masks provide BFE at more than 95%. Face masks of this level are used for patients and others to reduce the risk of infection spread. Although not designed for healthcare professionals, EN14683 Type I face masks are effective in reducing the risk of spread of infections among people.
EN14683 Type II face masks, on the other hand, are designed for use by doctors and healthcare professionals. These masks provide BFE at more than 98% and are grouped into Type II and Type IIR face masks. However, Type II masks are not splash-resistant, and are therefore not recommended for use in high risk environments or in close proximity to patients.
EN14683 Type IIR face masks offer BFE at over 98% and are also splash-resistant ( >120 mmHg). Masks of this level are normally used for infection control in hospitals, clinics, general practice surgeries, dental surgeries, and other healthcare institutions to provide two-way protection for the wearer and to the people around them.
Which type of face mask should you use?
Health care workers in high risk environments where aerosol is generated should use particulate filter respirators such as N95 / KN95 or P2, to protect against airborne transmission.
Health care workers in lower risk environments with no aerosol generating procedures can use medical masks (levels 1, 2 and 3) that provide droplet protection.
Vulnerable people should use medical masks for protection. WHO described vulnerable persons as those aged over 60 years and those with underlying comorbidities, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and immunosuppression.
Everyone within a setting where physical distancing cannot be achieved, or where persons with any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 may be present, should wear a medical mask for the purposes of source control.
The general public can wear cloth masks where there is community transmission and where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing.
However, it is recommended that cloth masks be properly constructed to ensure they provide adequate protection and are handled and washed appropriately. It is recommended that the cloth mask is made of three layers of a combination of breathable fabrics to ensure adequate protection, including a water-resistant layer to increase their effectiveness. The and thehave issued guidance on cloth masks.
Wearing face masks in the workplace
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health by implementing suitable control measures so far as is reasonably practicable. For employers, mandating the use of face masks in the workplace may be helpful in achieving that.
Mask wearing in the workplace can act as an appropriate control measure in minimising the workplace’s exposure to COVID-19, but should also be applied in combination with other control measures such as good hand hygiene and physical distancing – keeping everyone at the workplace at least 1.5 metres physically apart. If you do implement a mask wearing protocol in your workplace, opt for disposable medical face masks to offer better protection, as it is difficult to regulate the proper use and washing of reusable cloth masks.
Consult with Safe Work Australia for further COVID-19 information for workplaces.
Where to buy face masks in Australia
Purchase medical face masks from your local pharmacy, departmental store or medical supplier. Before you purchase a medical mask, make sure you check that it is listed in the TGA ARTG as a medical device, and that it has been tested to the ASTM or EN14683 that you require for your needs.
You can also buy disposable medical face masks online from Andatech. Our MedSense medical masks are listed in the TGA ARTG and have been tested and meet ASTM and EN14683 requirements.
Reusable cloth or fabric face masks are also available in various online stores. However, do make sure that it has a water-resistant layer to offer adequate protection, as recommended by health authorities. Additionally, ensure to follow guidelines on wearing and washing them properly.
The recent rise in community transmission of COVID-19 in Australia means some states and territories now recommend or require the use of masks. Make sure you stay up to date with the advice in your local area or on the Department of Health website.
This content was originally published here.