A surgical mask is for dentists, doctors, nurses and other health professionals. They are also known as a procedure mask, medical mask, or examination mask.
Surgical masks are used as a physical barrier to protect the user from hazards, such as splashes of large droplets of blood or body fluids. They are also designed to prevent the wearer from spreading bacteria to other people.
General public in East Asian countries are often seen wearing surgical masks to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases.
Surgical masks are not respirators as they are not designed to seal tightly against the user’s face. Air can pass through the gaps in the sides. A N95 or P2 mask are respirators that actually form a tight seal. This forces air to be breathed in to pass through its filter which removes contaminants. While they provide more protection, these respirators are less comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
A daily protective mask looks like a surgical mask but is not approved at the same standard as one required for invasive medical procedures. A daily protective mask is often seen in Asian countries where the wearing of masks during daily activities such as work and shopping is more of a norm.
Studies like the one conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan, found that family members reduced their risk of getting the flu by 70 percent when they washed their hands often and wore surgical masks. This study suggests that the use of masks should always be paired with regular handwashing.
Did you know that there are both certified and non-certified surgical masks. While they can all look very similar, not all medical masks provide the same filtration protection or ability to resist blood and body fluids.
There are surgical masks available that come in 2 ply and 3 ply. How are they different from each other and which one is used where?
A certified 3 ply mask has three layers:
1. the outside layer: that repels water, blood and body fluids
2. a quality middle filter layer: this filters the air passing through it. The certification process checks the quality of the filter
3. the inner layer (against your face): it can act as a barrier for water, sweat and spit.
While a 2 ply mask looks similar, it is a cheaper version with only two layers. It does not have a filter.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are two well known American bodies that assess products and provide certification when they meet the required standards.