For those working in the medical and health sectors, wearing a PPE grade mask is now compulsory. The pandemic has brought new demand for face coverings, with hundreds of products in the market, huge variations in price and quality and a lack of transparency in how face coverings’ performance and safety standards are measured. This can make the vital role of protecting staff and customers a confusing and stressful one.
According to Mike Murray, chief technical officer of the flexible foam and science-based materials company The Vita Group, there are some misconceptions about masks. Here, he separates truth from fiction when it comes to face coverings.
1) All face coverings adhere to minimum safety standards
Unfortunately, there are currently no minimum safety standards for face coverings in the UK (in part because the market has grown so rapidly the legislation has not yet caught up). More problematic, however, are the misleading claims made about certain face covering’s performance. For example, “protection on contact” sounds impressive, but it is a completely inappropriate metric to be measuring a face covering on, given that the filtration efficiency of the face covering will determine its efficiency.
In the absence of consistent guidelines, what should you look for?
A good starting point is to look for bacterial filtration efficiency percentage (BFE) rating, which is an industry-accepted test, such as EN14683, performed on filtration materials designed to provide protection against biological aerosols, such as facemasks, surgical gowns, caps, and air filters. To be effective, a face covering’s BFE should be at least 70 per cent and, if possible, much higher. The greater the BFE, the better protection a face covering offers the user from airborne bacteria and viruses.
In addition, Centexbel, an independent scientific and technical research test centre in the European textile industry, has recently developed a Covid-19 approved performance label for community face coverings. We anticipate this may become more common across the market in the months to come and it is another hallmark of quality.
2) Breathing valves add extra protection
Many people navigate towards face coverings with breathing valves, under the impression they with help compensate against low breathability. However, breather valves actually feature a one-way system. They filter air drawn through them, but do not stop bacteria and viruses being exhaled. Furthermore, in order to remain clean, breather valves must be changed regularly, increasing the risk of the user contaminating themselves. People can often forget to replace the filter, or even fit them incorrectly but continue to believe they are protected. A face covering with a good bacterial filtration efficiency will not only allow satisfactory breathability, it also provides ease of maintenance through washing alone.
While face coverings that most general workplaces use don’t need to be ergonomically fitted in the way they do for medical professionals, it is always better to choose a mask that is right for your face size and shape, rather than going down the one-size-fits-all route, especially if your staff are going to be wearing them for prolonged periods of time.
Most quality, re-usable face coverings come in a variety of sizes, which will ensure they fit snugly over the mouth and nose and therefore minimise the transfer of bacteria and droplets carrying viral load in the air. Furthermore, an appropriately fitted face covering is more comfortable too, improving the chances of the user actually wearing it.
4) All face coverings follow strict UK health and safety guidelines
There are an alarming number of face coverings on the market without qualification for their suitability for skin contact which could cause serious skin irritation on prolonged contact. As with minimum filtration levels, there is little regulation in the market currently when it comes to skin-safe materials, so the responsibility falls on the consumer to ensure a particular face covering is safe.
The Oeko-tex Standard 100 standard is one of the world’s best-known independent labels for textiles tested for harmful substances, and is used across multiple industries as a signifier for customer confidence and high product safety. For a procurement professional purchasing face coverings on behalf of a workforce or to stock in stores, this is a highly recommended standard to look for.
5) Face coverings stop working after a single use
True and false.
Single use paper masks should never be re-worn, and should always be replaced as they become damp, which can happen after a few hours if not sooner. As soon as a mask becomes damp, its filtration qualities may diminish. Higher quality three-layer face coverings can be worn for a longer period of time, but protection levels may still vary. Ultimately, there is some level of responsibility on the user to decide when a face covering is damp and needs replacing.
In all cases, however, re-usable face coverings should be washed daily and at a temperature which should be instructed on pack. For example, Vita Shield’s face coverings are effective for up to 50 washes. Always follow the care guidelines for optimal protection.
6) Only medical-grade masks will do
Medical masks are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders. Purchasing medical-grade masks for an entire workforce could prove expensive, so considering the guidance it’s well worth choosing a more cost-effective re-usable face covering alternative which has been tested for bacterial filtration efficiency greater than 90 per cent, meets Oeko-tex Standard 100, and is Centextbel Covid-19 approved.
7) Seam or Seamless… there’s no difference
With such a wide variety of face coverings available on the market, it's often hard to know what style to go for and you may be under the impression that design and style plays no part in how protected you are. Wrong. Seams in the centre part of a face covering actually creates potential for leakage. If the seam is not robust, or begins to breakdown through wear and tear, then the stretch of the face covering could open this up, allowing the passage of airborne bacteria and viruses to bypass the filtering effect.
8) It’s better to buy cheap and disposable
The type of face covering you procure for your staff will depend on business circumstances. For anyone wearing a face covering for more than a few hours a day, a re-usable mask will almost always end up being more cost effective. Face coverings should be valued on a cost-per-wear basis. Disposable masks tend to vary in price and cannot be re-used, whereas a 50x re-usable face can work out at just 10p per wear. There's also a reduction of potential waste by wearing re-usable face coverings compared to single use disposables.
Even with the hope of a vaccine on the horizon, face covering usage is unlikely to go away anytime soon. As we have seen in Asia over the last decade, pandemics can embed face covering wearing into the public consciousness and they become more aware of hygiene and personal care. It is a trend we are likely to see among many more groups for years to come. As such, it is important to get it right, as soon as possible, helping to protect, helping to reduce potential waste and ultimately helping to minimise the spread of coronavirus.