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Do we need to ditch our cloth mask for a respirator face mask – that is, an N95 or P2 model – and if so, can we re-use them?
Since the Omicron outbreak, some infection control experts have suggested we should switch to industrial respirators as they have a higher degree of filtration and don’t let airborne particles escape or be breathed in as much due to their ability to form a seal around the mouth and nose.
“They’ve probably got a false sense of security,” says Professor Catherine Bennett, of people who wear ill-fitting respirator masks. “They’re probably not a lot different from a surgical mask.”Credit:iStock
“Technically, the instructions say you shouldn’t re-use them,” says Professor Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University of the industrial respirators, which have traditionally been worn by doctors, nurses and people in industries like construction. “Depending on what setting; in a hospital setting, you wouldn’t.”
Occupational environment physician Malcolm Sim agrees. He says in an industrial setting they’d be thrown out at the end of each shift, as they’d likely be contaminated by the hazardous particles they’ve been used to filter out. “If you put it [an N95 mask] off and put it on, they’re not meant for that purpose,” he says, adding that the integrity of the masks can be compromised.
“They’re easily damaged in somebody’s handbag,” says Sim, who has served on infection control groups for the state and federal governments. “The straps become loose quite quickly. If they become wet, and we’re breathing out – we have moisture in our exhaled breath – they become wet and damaged that way… The material will break down when it becomes wet, so it’s much more likely for viruses to adhere to the material. If you’re handling them a lot, taking them on and off, there’s much more potential for you to get it [the virus] on your hands, your face, different parts of your body.”
So, says Sim: “You could use them a few times, but you certainly wouldn’t use them on multiple occasions. That would be my strong advice.” (As for a particular model, unlike the P2 and N95 masks, the KN95 masks “usually don’t meet the stringent Australian standard here”, he says.)
“You could use them a few times, but you certainly wouldn’t use them on multiple occasions.”
If you do want to reuse your N95 or P2 mask a few times, though – some experts say they can be reused as long as the mask “maintains its structural and functional integrity”. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended that N95 respirators not be reused more than five times – here is some further guidance.
Air dry your mask after use
Firstly, air dry your mask in the sun after use in order to disinfect it, says Bennett, who advises buying multiple masks so they can be rotated while each is being cleaned, and then throwing each out after it has been worn “a few times”. She recommends leaving a couple of days between wearing the same mask again.
There’s “no magic [amount of] time” the mask needs to stay in the sun. “Just give it a good dose of sunlight when you take it off… They work better when they’re absolutely dry. Don’t spray it with anything, don’t moisten it, don’t use disinfectant.”
Dispose of your mask if it gets wet
Don’t re-use a mask, adds Sim, if it is exposed to the rain, and don’t put it in your pocket between wears. Ideally, you would put the mask in a plastic, zip lock bag or a box with a lid (to ensure it won’t be crushed), and do so only once the mask is completely dry. “It’s going to damage the integrity of the seal,” he says, of a mask that is placed in a pocket or handbag. “Because it will be crumpled. It will open up gaps, and the protection drops off pretty quickly in those circumstances.”
Fit the mask to your face – “almost vacuum tight”
People need to manage their face carefully, too, before they wear the mask each time: the presence of any facial hair or oils on the skin can damage the mask’s seal, as can skin irritations that cause inflammation, he adds.
But perhaps most importantly, say experts, the mask needs to continue to fit tightly over your face, without any gaps along the edges or around the nose.
“If you’re not particularly checking its fit, you’re probably wasting your time,” says Bennett, adding that when hospital staff wear N95s, their masks are “fit-tested” by a specialty machine to make sure they’re “almost vacuum tight”. “If you’re drawing in air around the edges of the mask or expelling air around the edges, they’re not working to that [designed] specification.” (When used properly, respirator masks filter at least 94 per cent of airborne particles at a size of 0.1 microns.) “That specification is [based] on all air going through the mask [rather than out the sides].
“I’ve seen people wearing them out in the community, they pull them on and off, have stretched the ear loops, they’re hanging loose on the face,” she says. “They’ve probably got a false sense of security. They’re probably not a lot different from a surgical mask.”
Avoid handling your mask
It’s crucial to handle the mask as little as possible, wash your hands after touching it and ideally take it on and off using the ear loops. Bennett says an N95 is not a good choice for a mask you plan on putting on to go into a café or shop, and then taking it off once you nibble on something, and then put it back on afterwards, and so forth.
“You might get infected [with the virus],” she says, as COVID particles may be present on the outside of the mask. “If you’re handling it from the outside, that’s why they say to put it in a [plastic] bag [when you carry it with you], because if you have the virus on your hands, there is a small risk that you could have your hand to your face, rub your eye, and that might be all it takes to get an infecting dose.”
“Ideally, these are the masks that people pull out on special occasions,” she adds of respirators, like those who are visiting people who are vulnerable to infection, going to a neighbourhood with a high-infection rate, or travelling on public transport when it’s packed with people. (They’re also good, she says, for those who have “a very people-facing job”.) This is why Bennett, who is rarely in these situations, usually opts for a disposal surgical mask – used once – under a close-fitting three-ply cloth mask. “That’s probably the next best thing to do after an N95.”
Professor Bruce Thompson, dean of health sciences at Swinburne University, agrees, and is firmly against re-using an N95. “Ultimately, you’ve got to assume that the thing’s got infected once you’ve used it,” he says. “That’s the whole reason you’re using it, to not contract the bug. You [should] treat them like your [already worn] underwear. Don’t touch them or share them or reuse them.”
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