Wearing a face mask as a form of protection is nothing new. The idea that there are things we cannot see with the naked eye that are potentially detrimental to our health has been around for centuries.
If we travel back to the 14th century, we can recall the famous doctor’s bird-beak-shaped mask worn to prevent contracting or spreading the black plague.
Fast-forward to 1918 and the influenza pandemic where we witnessed the first cloth masks. Much like current times, masks became mandatory in public spaces to slow the spread of the virus. And much like today, some people resisted.
Then, skip to the mid-1960s when we birthed the mass-production of disposable surgical masks. These masks included a new filtering-system with a non-woven synthetic fiber– a game-changer for those in the medical field and industrial workers.
Now, with science at our fingertips, it’s undeniable that a face mask protects us. We know masks are critical in reducing the spread of viruses like COVID-19. And therefore, we should all be wearing them.
Different Masks Protect Against Different Particles
You’ve probably seen all types of protective masks at this point, from fashion statements to face shields. Different masks serve their specific purposes.
The type of mask you wear might depend on your personal risk factor. It also might depend on where you’re going and what you’re doing. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) comes in various forms, each one protecting against certain potentially harmful particles.
Types of PPE:
● General use face masks
● Surgical masks
● Respirators (N95s)
● Hazmat suits
General use face masks are the easy access kind you see while strolling through grocery store aisles, on walks, or in public spaces. Many are reusable and made from cloth fabric such as cotton or spandex. These need to be washed regularly to avoid self-contamination.
Surgical masks are disposable and are used largely in the medical community to protect against large water droplets. Like general use masks, these can protect you from the virus if someone were to sneeze on you while passing you at the store. These should be disposed of after one-time use to avoid contamination.
Respirators (often referred to as N95s) have filters made of tangled-up fibers. These masks fit more tightly to the face. They filter pathogens and tiny particulates in the air and are mainly used by healthcare professionals and industrial workers.
Hazmat suits are by far the most hardcore. Short for “hazardous material”, hazmat suits are worn by firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, researchers, and those working in toxic environments or contaminated facilities. They protect people from radioactive material, chemicals, and biological agents.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) regulates N95 respirators that are manufactured for healthcare workers exposed to viruses like COVID-19. In addition, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates N95s for those working industrial or construction-type jobs who are exposed to tiny particulate matter.
It’s safe to say the N95 filter has shown efficacy in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
0.3 Is the Magic Number
How small is small, you might ask?
A little scientific breakdown may be in order here. So, air particles are measured in microns (μm), and one micrometer is 1 millionth of a meter. For reference, a hair follicle is 75 μm, which is approximately .003 of an inch. A sheet of paper is 100 μm. Tiny, tiny stuff!
Now that we know how big or small microns are, we can understand the degree to which face masks protect us. And 0.3 microns is the number most mask filters claim to protect against.
If we want, we can break it down even further...
Masks ratings are measured by BFE (Bacterial Filtration Efficiency or PFE (Particle Filtration Efficiency). Ones that are rated for 0.3 microns can filter out the following:
● Woodsmoke (2.5 microns)
● Dust mites (100 - 300 microns)
● Human sneeze (10-100 microns)
● Pollen (10-1000 microns)
● Sawdust (30-600)
● Skin flakes (0.5-10)
● Smoke from synthetic materials (1-50)
Thus, masks can help us filter out the majority of the itty bitty things that may cause us harm.