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A mask is a layer of covering which wraps around the wearer’s face enveloping the area between the nose and the chin.
Typically, it has been worn to avoid:
• Inhalation of microbes and harmful substances present in the air or aerosols such as bacteria, viruses, or toxic gases.
• To prevent the exhalation of the microbes from the mouth of the infected person to others.
Simply put, it is a barrier to prevent the exchange of harmful substances, such as bacteria, viruses, or even harmful toxins present in the air.
Face masks come in a variety of sizes and shapes with different features. For a person from a non-medical background, it gets challenging to understand the use of different masks and when to use it.
The most common and easy differentiation of the masks could be to split them into two categories:
As the name suggests, these are used during surgery to prevent the exchange of the particles to and from the wearer. It comes in a rectangular design, which includes folds to spread the mask from the nose to the chin.
Some points worth noting regarding the surgical masks are:
• Layers: It is usually three-layered (three-ply).
• Fastening band: It can be fastened either behind the head or with ear loops. It is a loosely fitted mask that doesn’t provide complete coverage of the face and mainly covers the nose and the mouth.
• Particulate protection: These masks aren’t highly efficient in protection against airborne particulates, including viruses and bacteria, unlike respirators, which is made for this purpose.
• Single use: It is highly recommended to dispose-off these masks after a single use or as soon as it catches moisture as they are specifically meant to be used only once.
Respirators are full-face covering devices, which prevent the wearer from inhaling particulate matter, including micro-organisms, which could cause hazardous outcomes.
It has a variety of types that are used depending on the purpose. They can be used to provide respiratory protection from particles in industries, in the medical field, or for daily protection from pollution.
One type of respirator that is most commonly used is an N95, N99, or an N100 respirator, which is certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
• Shape: It is oval in shape, consisting of a metal band to be pressed against the nose to ensure complete coverage.
• Fastening band: They can be fastened using a head strap or an ear loop.
• Particulate protection: They are usually provided with PM2.5 protection, meaning they can filter out any particulate matter(PM) with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or above.
• Safety level: The rating N95 defines its resistance to the prevention of 95% particles from entering the mask, including bacteria and viruses. Similarly, an N99 rated mask prevents 99% of particles, and an N100 mask prevents 99.7% of particles.
• Number of layers: it contains 4 to 5 layers of protection, including the inside and outside layers.It can be uncomfortable to wear them for long durations.
• Valve for breathing out: Sometimes these masks can be very stuffy due to many layers and are provided with valves for exhalation, which prevent the deposit of moisture in the mask and make it feel less hot inside.
Different countries have different terms to denote masks that fall under the same category and provide the same level of protection. For example: An N95 mask can also be referred to as a KF94 under South Korean norms or as a KN95 under Chinese regulations or also as PPF2 under European rules, but they are all essentially in the same category of 95% protection against particles.
A mask can be used to serve its purpose of creating a barrier between the face and the environment. Each mask has a separate purpose which it can fulfill.
• Basic protection against discharge from the nose or the mouth.
• Most commonly used in an Operation Theatre during surgeries by the medical staff.
• In case of flu or cold to prevent it from spreading to other people.
• People also use it in South East Asian countries for protection against pollution, although it might not be very effective.
• Highly efficient against environmental pollution and hazardous vapors or fumes.
• Effective in filtration against viruses and bacteria.
• Most commonly used in the industries for protection against fine particles of dust that can cause breathing issues or lung infections.
• Front line health workers are recommended to use this mask to protect themselves against the virus in the current epidemic situation.
• Some of the people in the general public also use it for protection amidst the current Covid-19 situation. But its use for the general population has not been recommended by the global health authorities contemplating its shortage for medical staff.
As N95 or N99 can only protect against dry particulates or aerosols, other masks come in handy when being used against oily particles and are referred to as R95 or R99(oil resistant) and P95 or P99(oil proof).
A face mask can be made out of various components, and its protection depends on the material being used in manufacturing its layers. Different masks consist of different materials.
A surgical mask is usually a three-layered mask (three-ply), which consists of two layers of non-woven fabric with a layer of polypropylene fabric in the middle. The reason to use non-woven fabric is, it is less slippery when layered with a woven fabric and has better air permeability and bacterial resistance.
The process involved in manufacturing is:
• Spun bound process is used to manufacture a 20gsm(thickness) mask. Polypropylene is extruded in a web form onto a conveyer which bond together as they cool.
• A 25gsm mask involves the use of a melt-blown fabric, which is extruded from many tiny nozzles using a die onto a conveyer and then blown with hot air, which converts them to small fibers and they bond as they cool down.
• Two layers of non-woven fabric is ultrasonically welded with the polypropylene layer. The machine then sticks the ear loop and presses to form the pleats and the nose strip.
• Non-woven fabric is cheaper and is disposable, which leads to its extended use.
• All masks are sterilized before being sent out of the factory.
A respirator or an N95 mask is different from a surgical mask and consists of 4 to 5 layers, which make it considerably more efficient against bacteria, viruses, and other particles. The outer and inner layers are non-woven fabric for protection against the outside and the wearer’s exhalation on the inside. Other layers in a mask can include carbon sheet, other PM2.5 resistant materials, or melt-blown fabrics.
Carbon filters the microbial particles and also helps in neutralizing the odor.
The process is listed below.
• The masks are passed through a hot roller or a press which forms and helps retain the original cup shape.
• Layers of fabric are then woven together and stitched on top of the original layer.
• A nose clip is attached after cutting the mask to the desired shape and joining them together.
• If the mask contains a valve, holes are cut out, and the valve is fixed on the mask.
• Final process includes printing the name or certification and attaching the ear loops before it is sterilized and sent to consumers.
These masks are sometimes reusable and washable. Many manufacturers produce masks with the option of changing the filtration layers inside the mask and also provide additional filtration layers to do so.
There is not a big secret to how these masks work or how they help in preventing the spread of diseases.
A surgical mask does what it’s meant to do by creating a barrier between the wearer’s face and the environment.
• The layers catch the droplets or other particles and prevent them from reaching the wearer.
• It also prevents any droplets from reaching the environment and causing contamination to other people.
A respirator also functions in a similar way by providing a barrier but is much more efficient.
• Multiple layers of fabric ensure protection to a much better extent compared to a surgical mask.
• Its extreme resistance to small particles prevents any sort of contaminants from entering the mask and the wearer.
• The multiple layers also ensure no micro-organisms or any particles, including aerosol or droplets of sneeze or cough, leave the mask in case the wearer is infected, thus protecting the outside environment from contamination as well.
• For the layers to prevent the particles and allow air to pass through, the layers contain a charge opposite to the particles, which causes the particles to stick to the layers.
• Most respirators are provided with a valve, which makes an easy path for exhaled air to travel, thus providing less resistance and less heat inside the mask.
Wearing a mask involves some simple steps which if not followed properly,can lead to harm rather than protection.
These necessary steps are listed below.
• Hand sanitization before wearing the mask: One of the most important steps which need to be taken care of is to wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol sanitizer. This is of utmost importance before handling a mask.
• Inspection of the mask: Once washed and dry, the mask should be inspected for any sort of damage or holes. If any contaminants are present or if it’s dirty, it is advised to discard the mask safely in a closed bin.
• Wearing the mask: Once it’s ensured that there is no damage, the mask should be placed on the face covering the nose and the mouth and should be fastened either with the headband or an ear loop, whichever is provided.
• Fixing the mask: In case of a respirator, it is necessary to make sure that the mask sits completely airtight on the face to prevent any leakage as it would otherwise defeat the purpose. If it is a surgical mask, open up the folds to cover the complete area between the nose and the chin.
• Cleaning hands again: Once the mask is in place, the hands need to be rewashed with soap and water or rubbed with an alcohol sanitizer.
• No tampering of the mask: Once in place, it’s suggested not to tamper with the mask in any way until it needs to be removed.
• Removing the mask: While removing the mask, make sure not to touch the front of the mask and use the headband or ear loops to remove it.
• Again, once removed, clean hands by washing them with soap and water or an alcohol sanitizer as the mask might be contaminated due to use.
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