Alongside hand washing and social distancing, face masks are one of the most effective ways of reducing the transmission of respiratory infections. However, to maximise efficacy, they must be sterile and used correctly.

Wearing a mask can create a false sense of security, and many people are neglecting some of the necessary hygiene steps needed to ensure their mask is safe to use and offers adequate protection.

Poor performance

In medical environments, N95 respirators and surgical masks have long been used to protect frontline doctors and nurses.

N95 respirators are designed to protect the wearer by filtering out 95% of airborne particles that measure 0.3 micrometres and larger. However, as the pandemic ramped up, these respirators quickly fell into short supply. There are also very specific guidelines and instructions on how to fit and wear this type of personal protective equipment properly, and it is critical that they are followed for the N95 respirator to work effectively. As such, they are not generally suitable for use by the general public.

In comparison, surgical masks are loose-fitting, soft, pleated, disposable devices that create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and the environment.

At the start of lockdown, many people bought these surgical masks in bulk — probably thinking they would only need a short-term solution. It is estimated that surgical and comparable cloth masks (made up of between 12 to 16 layers of cotton or gauze) are 67% effective in protecting the wearer, but only if they are used correctly and changed frequently.

As the pandemic has continued, people have also realised the environmental impact of disposable surgical masks and sought a more sustainable (and cost-effective) alternative in single-layer or multi-layer cloth masks. However, a 2015 study found rates of infection were consistently higher among those wearing a double-layered cotton cloth mask compared to those wearing a medical face mask. It was suggested that this poor performance might have been because the masks were not washed frequently enough or because they became moist and contaminated.

A lax approach

Although any material may provide a physical barrier to infection, it is of no benefit to the user if the material itself becomes contaminated.

At the start of the pandemic and the first lockdown, many were meticulous about following the guidelines: always wash or sanitise your hands before putting on and taking off your mask, do not touch the mask while wearing it and always wash it after each use.

However, research has shown again and again that compliance with guidelines declines over time. Essentially, people are becoming laxer about the correct usage for face masks as the pandemic continues.

Uncomfortable masks mean people are frequently adjusting them with unsanitised hands. Equally, people are tired of constantly washing and drying their face masks after each use; as a result, many are reusing potentially contaminated masks multiple times.

Finding the answer

To improve hygiene and ensure masks remain safe for use, there needs to be a quicker and more effective way to sterilise them.

Masks made from medical silicone — a permanently antimicrobial material — can be sterilised in just five minutes using a microwave, oven or boiling water. The same amount of time it takes to make a cup of tea or coffee…

Unlike disposable or reusable cloth masks (which can quickly start to smell if it is hot or you are sweating), the antimicrobial properties of medical silicone completely prevent this issue by killing odour-causing bacteria.

When combined with replaceable FFP2 filters, these types of masks offer a higher level of protection that is comparable to the American N95 (95%) filter standard — protecting both you and the people around you.