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What Are Non-Medical Masks For?

Today, science has proven that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets. This means that when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes, the virus may be transmitted in the air. In addition to that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are actual people who are asymptomatic, which means that they are able to transmit the virus to others while showing no signs or symptoms of COVID-19 infection. With that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO have strongly recommended that people wear face masks in order to protect themselves from being exposed to respiratory droplets that may contain the infectious SARS-CoV-2.

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Although the science revolving around the effectiveness of non-medical face masks is not absolute, these types of face masks most likely offer some degree of protection against the coronavirus. Studies have shown that surgical face masks could prevent the transmission of the coronavirus from symptomatic individuals. In addition to that, studies have shown that non-medical face masks can still reduce the risk of transmission. With that, researchers strongly encourage the use of face masks, especially in public settings. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people use a simple cloth or non-medical face covering when they go out. If utilized by the public, it is possible that non-medical face masks might help slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

This article will give you a more thorough understanding about non-medical face masks, their benefits, and their proper usage. So if you are interested, just keep on reading.

Types of face mask

Before we go through what are non-medical face masks, it is important to know the different types of face masks that are available in the market. The three main types of masks include: 

  1. Surgical mask - These types of masks cover the wearer's nose and mouth. Surgical masks provide a physical barrier to fluids and particulate materials. Surgical masks meet certain fluid barrier protection standards and Class I or Class II flammability tests. Hence, surgical masks are considered as medical devices and are usually intended for medical purposes. Furthermore, surgical masks are also tested for biocompatibility and are considered personal protective equipment. 

  2. Respirators - these include N95, FFP2, or the equivalent. They are named as such because they have the ability to filter at least 95% of airborne particles. They are considered as PPE that can tightly fit the face and offer certain filtration efficiency levels in order to help decrease the wearer's exposure to possible infectious airborne pathogens in a health care setting.

  3. Non-medical masks or cloth face coverings - Like surgical masks, these types of mask covers the wearer’s nose and mouth, however may or may not meet fluid barrier or filtration efficiency levels. With that, non-medical face masks are not intended for  medical purposes and are not considered as medical devices or PPE. It must be noted, however, that non-medical face masks may be utilized by the general public and health care personnel in order to control infectious spread, as long as it is in accordance with the CDC’s recommendations on Interim Infection Prevention and Control.

What are non-medical masks?

It is already explained above what non-medical face masks are. However, just to elabore, these types of masks are any kind of face coverings that are not N95 masks or surgical masks. With that, anyone can make their own non-medical masks through utilizing a variety of fabrics and different types of materials such scarves, bandanas, T-shirts, handkerchiefs, pillowcases, and the likes. It must be noted that a tightly woven cotton fabric is most ideal when creating your own non-medical face masks. In addition to that, studies have shown that a combination of different fabrics such as cotton, silk, chiffon, flannel, and various synthetics can be utilized in order to produce a more effective type of non-medical face masks? 

Key Differences Of Non-medical Face Masks to Medical Face masks

  • Unlike Surgical Face Masks that are classified by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), Non-medical face masks have not been evaluated or tested to recognized standards.
  • The purpose of surgical masks is to act as a barrier to spreading droplets and spit, while Non-medical masks help limit the spread of droplets and spit when the user sneezes or coughs.
  • Non-medical face masks are not designed to seal tight against the face.
  • The filtration of non-medical face masks are not the same as materials used in certified masks and do not necessarily filter viruses.
  • Non-medical face masks have limitations such as it can be difficult to breathe through fabric or the need to wash between uses.
  • Unlike surgical masks in which the use should be prioritized to those health care workers and others who are providing direct care to a COVID-19 patient and for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms, non-medical masks can be used by the general public when in a shared space, whether indoors or outdoors, with people from outside of the immediate household, or when advised by the local public health authority.

Construction of non-medical face masks

It is important to note that non-medical face masks can only offer a degree of protection against infectious pathogens when it is well-constructed, well-fitting and properly worn. With that, just like all protective devices, the effectiveness of a non-medical mask greatly depends on the materials utilized for producing it, how the mask is made, and how well it fits.  Hence, it is important to remember that a non-medical mask should have the following elements: 

  • Produced with multiple layers, which include at least 2 layers of tightly woven fabric, such as cotton and a third middle layer of filter-type fabric, such as non-woven polypropylene 
  • Made with materials that are light, breathable, and hypoallergenic
  • Should have filters, or at least have pockets for filters;  
    • A filter that acts as a middle layer in a non-medical mask can provide an additional layer of protection against coronavirus by blocking infectious respiratory particles. 
    • It must be noted that you can incorporate a filter in a non-medical mask through adding one as a middle layer using a non-woven polypropylene fabric such as craft fabric, interfacing material commonly used  in sewing, and the non-woven material utilized to produce reusable shopping bags. 
    • If no filter is present, insert a disposable filter into a pocket on the inside of the mask. Filters can be purchased or you can make your own through a piece of non-woven polypropylene fabric or a baby wipe that has been rinsed, dried and folded in half. 
    • Disposable filters should be changed daily
  • Should have a non-woven layer that can be washed several times. 
  • Good fit. 
    • It must be noted that a well-fitting non-medical face mask should be large enough to completely and comfortably cover the nose, mouth and chin without gaps; fit securely to the head with ties or ear loops; be comfortable and not need usual adjustments; and be able to maintain shape after multiple washing and drying. 

Things to note when using non-medical face masks

As stated above, the effectiveness of non-medical face masks are greatly affected by how it is worn. Hence, it can only offer protection when it is used properly. With that, things to note when using your non-medical face masks: 

  • Make sure that your non-medical face masks snugs your mouth, nose, and chin completely without any gaps
  • Do not remove masks in public for it potentially exposes you and others to infectious pathogens.
  • When you adjust your mask, put your mask on, or take your mask off, remember to wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer after doing so.
  • It is vital to keep your non-medical face mask clean when not in use, or when eating or drinking. 
  • Do not hang your non-medical face mask from your ears or place it under your chin. 
  • Store your non-medical face masks in a clean paper or cloth bag until you use it again.
  • If your non-medical face mask gets damp or dirty, change it as soon as possible. 
  • Place soiled non-medical face masks in a secure, waterproof bag or container until you can wash them in the laundry.
  • Discard disposable face masks and filters properly in a garbage container.

References: 

  1. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. 2021. Respirators, Surgical Masks, and Non-Medical Masks. Retrieved from: https://www.ccohs.ca/covid19/facts-on-masks/. Retrieved on 14 May 2021. 
  2. Government of Canada. 2020. Non-medical masks: About. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/prevention-risks/about-non-medical-masks-face-coverings.html. Retrieved on 14 May 2021. 
  3. Medical News Today. 2020. Different types of face mask to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/types-of-face-mask. Retrieved on 14 May 2021. 
  4. World Health Organization. 2020. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks. Retrieved on 14 May 2021. 

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