Let’s recall pre-COVID times for once when masks were a rarity. They were thought to be the only healthcare workers’ requirement. Or they were worn by few as protection from dust, pollution, common cold, and sun. But now in this agonizing Covid-19 pandemic masks have become an utmost necessity for everyone all around the globe.
Be it a surgical mask, N-95 mask, or simply a cloth mask we just can’t step out of our homes without it. Masks have become an imperative requirement of these critical times. When one can’t identify who’s infected and who’s not by a mere glance. Even we are not sure about ourselves either because anyone can be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
That’s why we all must demonstrate this decent sense of responsibility to ensure wearing masks every time and everywhere when required. Let’s have a close insight into the types of masks, their effectiveness, some problems associated with them, and their possible solutions.
Is it worth it to wear masks?
When we cough, sneeze or even talk there is an outward transmission of droplets and aerosols. Speaking generates considerable droplets and coughing and sneezing generate more outsized droplets. Larger droplets (≥5-10 μm) fall out rapidly while smaller droplets (aerosols<5 μm) remain suspended in the air for many minutes to hours and travel far away from their source via air currents. Compared to using no masks the use of masks significantly reduces the outward emission of particles and droplets although different types of masks have different effectiveness in reducing this outward transmission. So, it’s worth it to wear a mask.
A surgical mask or medical mask is a 3 ply (3- layers), loose-fitting disposable mask. Its outer layer is fluid repellent, the middle layer acts as a filter against germs and the inner layer is moisture absorbent which absorbs moisture released by the wearer. If worn appropriately it protects the wearer from droplets, splashes, sprays that may contain pathogens. It filters out large particles in the air and also protects others from the wearer’s respiratory emissions.
By design, a surgical mask does not provide its wearer with protection against small particles in the air that may be transmitted through cough or sneeze. Because of its loose-fitting, it does not provide its wearer with complete protection against germs.
A surgical mask is disposable and intended to be used only once. Discard it safely by wrapping it in a plastic bag and putting it in a closed trash bin. Don’t forget to wash your hands after handling the used mask.
The N95 mask is a 5 layered, tight-fitting mask that filters out 95 % of particles both large and small thus reducing the wearer’s exposure to small aerosols as well as large droplets. When properly donned it forms a seal around the mouth and nose ensuring minimal leakage through edges. N-95 masks are widely used in health care settings and now they have become indispensable for healthcare workers.
N-95 masks are disposable and designed to be used only once but their reuse and routine decontamination are needed to be considered due to their increasing demands to ensure continued availability. Washing with soap or detergent or decontaminating with alcohol reduces their efficacy and filter performance. Currently, there are not any standard methods to decontaminate N-95 masks however, it is recommended to use them up to five times without cleaning them unless they are contaminated with the patient’s fluids.
It should be discarded when damaged, becomes visibly dirty or wet with respiratory secretions, or no longer fit properly on the face.
Cloth masks are easily accessible, reusable, environmentally friendly, and washable face coverings but they are less effective than surgical face masks and N-95 masks. However, their effectiveness can be increased to some extent by using tightly woven fabrics such as cotton and cotton blends, breathable fabrics comprising of three layers. Single layered fabric does not filter well.
Cloth masks can be easily washed using warm water and detergent and can be reused. Make sure to dry them properly before reuse as wet masks are not effective to use.
Handy Mask tips:
1: Covering your N-95 mask with a surgical mask or face shield can protect it from contamination and increases its utilization.
2: For cloth masks hybrid fabrics such as cotton-silk or cotton- chiffon provides better filtration and are comfortable to use.
3: Keep your used masks in a breathable plastic bag or paper bag and make sure to wash or sanitize your hands after reuse.
4: Opt for a seven – day rotation method by keeping your used mask rested in a paper or plastic bag for seven days and then reuse it. Almost all viruses become dead on a mask after seven days.
5: To prevent fogging of glasses make sure to close all the gaps on a surgical mask and keep it close to your face.
6: Washing your glasses with soap and water and drying with a microfiber cloth (that usually comes with glasses) instead of tissue can minimize the fogging of glasses.
7: To prevent your ears from aching wear a headband with buttons sewn onto it and loop your mask around the buttons instead of ears. You can also use safety pins for this purpose.
The dire need to design more environmentally friendly masks:
As the surgical and N-95 masks are made of microplastic fibers and are disposable. Millions of masks are being thrown away in the environment which is intensifying the environmental pollution by adding tonnes of contaminated plastic wastes to landfills and waterways.
So, there is a dire need to design more reusable masks made of biodegradable materials. Moreover, there is also a need to develop efficient methods to recycle and decontaminate used masks to prevent environmental pollution.
As the second wave of COVID -19 is at its peak so Masks alone are not enough to stop its spread we all need to behave wisely by ensuring Social Distancing and Washing or Sanitizing our hands appropriately besides wearing masks because the vaccine is still months away from us.