There are so many different surgical masks being sold nowadays, especially online. Most cost about $0.50 a piece, but do they really provide adequate protection against flu viruses and germs? Do all masks provide the same level of protection?
Looking at the reviews being posted on e-commerce platforms like Lazada, Shopee and Qoo10, many of the sellers supply face masks of poor quality, imported from dubious sources. Some of the common complaints include:
- Unusual odours, such as alcohol or cigarettes smell
- No inner packaging, just a bunch of masks stuffed into a thin cardboard box
- Stains and particles that look like footprints or hair
- Receiving masks in a ziplock bag. I wonder who did the packaging and if their hands were clean? Were they repacked because the boxes were damaged during shipping and the masks fell out of the box?
Some are also general-use masks, single ply or 2 ply, which were never meant for antiviral protection in the first place. But people still buy them anyway as long as they're cheap, not realizing that all they're buying is a false sense of security.
Real surgical masks are graded by ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) into 3 levels:
Level 1: Low Barrier Protection
General use for short procedures and exams that don't involve aerosols, sprays or fluids.
Level 2: Moderate Barrier Protection
For low to moderate levels of aerosols, sprays and/or fluids
Level 3: Maximum Barrier Protection
For heavy levels of aerosols, sprays and/or fluids
So how do you choose?
If you're a medical professional working in a hospital or clinic, you're likely to be exposed to numerous patients with respiratory problems such as coughing and sneezing, for more than 8 hours a day. Level 3 medical face masks would therefore be the best choice.
Elderly patients or those with chronic respiratory conditions going to hospitals or clinics for check ups should also use Level 3 masks, as they are a high-risk group for COVID-19. The same applies if you're accompanying those patients to the hospitals.
But if you're a young, healthy individual going into other public areas, such as commuting to work or school, Level 1 or 2 is actually good enough, since both offer high levels of bacteria filtration efficiency.
However, Level 1 filters 95% of bacteria, Levels 2 & 3 filter 98%. It may not seem like much difference, until you do the math and work out the opposite statistic.
If someone with COVID-19 coughs right in front of you, you have a 5% chance of catching the disease if you had a Level 1 mask. But if you had a Level 2 or Level 3 mask, that chance drops to 2%. So a Level 2 or Level 3 mask offers 2.5 times more protection than a Level 1 mask.
What really scares me is that most of the masks being sold now aren't even graded! They could be produced in somebody's backyard or garage instead of a clean room environment. That may explain why you get funny odours and stains in the masks. The workers could have been drinking and smoking and not wearing head covers when making the masks.
There's a lot of videos people circulate about using burn tests and water tests to verify if the materials are authentic. All this ensures is that materials with similar burn and fluid resistance properties are used; it does not ensure that the materials are actually anti-bacterial.
Even if the materials are authentic, there's nothing to ensure that they are produced in a proper clean room environment. This explains the presence of unpleasant odours and particles on the masks. For all you know, they could have been produced in somebody's garage or backyard!
So perhaps the next time you buy masks, you might want to be more discerning. Look for proper certificates issued by independent testing agencies, and not just base on sellers' claims or some video that they put up online. Look also at the reviews, especially the negative ones; they provide tell-tale signs about the kind of facilities they're made in.