SINGAPORE: Surgical masks are one of the most sought-after items in the world now.
Even with ST Engineering producing surgical masks here since February – after a foreign supplier could not fulfil its contractual obligations to Singapore – these are available only to front-line healthcare workers.
But there are alternatives out there. In the past few months, many people, from scientists to tailors, have tried to develop face masks that are both comfortable and safe.
Not all masks, however, are created equal. There are disposable three-layer masks, carbon filter masks, silicone masks, and even masks made of copper or nano-silver, said to kill viruses and bacteria.
With so many masks on the market, ranging in price from about 40 cents to S$76, this raises the question of how effective they each are.
The programme Talking Point finds out what science says about various masks — and seven things people should consider to protect themselves. (Watch the episode here.)
1. DISPOSABLE MASKS MAY NOT BE MEDICAL-GRADE
Although there are many disposable masks, and some are labelled surgical masks, not all conform to international standards, said Gareth Tang, senior vice-president of technology and head of Innosparks at ST Engineering.
Tang, who led the setting up of its surgical mask production line in just two weeks, said the company has “stringent, end-to-end quality control” to ensure that its surgical masks are medical-grade.
This includes testing how breathable the masks are and how efficient the layers of filtration are.
The bacterial filtration efficiency of a surgical mask must be above 95 per cent, and it must be resistant to the penetration of bodily fluids, according to the Health Sciences Authority.
So the efficiency reading of 98 per cent for ST Engineering's mask material marks a level that “blocks 98 per cent of bacteria and viruses, and that includes the COVID-19 virus, through the mask”, Tang noted.
The company is now working on making its masks more widely available, he said. “We hope to bring this mask to the general public in the near term.”
2. COPPER AND SILVER CAN KILL BACTERIA
The most expensive masks are those containing copper or silver.
In ancient times, the Egyptians used these metals to treat wounds, noted Lam Yeng Ming, professor and chair of materials science and engineering at Nanyang Technological University. So copper and silver “have been shown to kill bacteria”.
“They’re effective in some circumstances,” she said. That includes viruses, provided the copper or silver ions interact with the virus. For example, when a virus lands on a copper surface, the metal’s ions attack and kill the cells.
But this process takes time, anywhere from 30 minutes to a day. Another problem is that some face masks with copper woven into the fabric have spaces between the copper fibres.
“Between these lines, you can fit quite a lot of the virus,” she said. “If this spacing is hundreds of microns, essentially it can’t filter out (viruses).”
A nano-silver mask Talking Point sent to her to examine, however, was found to be fully coated with the metal, so the virus “should come into contact with these silver surfaces”.
While nano-silver and copper have shown to be effective against different viruses, she said tests specific to the virus that causes COVID-19 are key.
“That has to be conclusive. There are some studies being done, but I think more studies need to be done,” she added.
WATCH: Reusable or surgical — which is the right mask for you? (22:25)
3. STUDIES LACKING ON CARBON FILTER MASKS TOO
Some manufacturers claim that masks with a carbon filter are effective in filtering out bacteria and viruses.
Carbon filters are widely used in air purifiers to absorb and capture smoke and other gaseous pollutants — but they are not any more effective than other masks when it comes to the coronavirus.
“A carbon filter mask is effective (against) air pollutants, but for bacteria and for viruses, there definitely haven’t been many studies to show its effectiveness,” said Lam.
4. DO HOME-MADE MASKS WORK?
The second government-issued reusable mask has antibacterial properties. But like some people, Chrissandra Chong finds that “it sticks too closely to my face for me to breathe easily”.
The freelance branding consultant sews her own masks — with “adjustable ear loops” to cater for different face shapes and designed to be more breathable.
She has made more than 200 masks since February, and volunteers for Masks Sewn with Love, a grassroots initiative that has provided over 100,000 masks for vulnerable groups.
But are do-it-yourself masks good enough?
According to the World Health Organisation, the ideal fabric mask should have at least three layers: An innermost layer of absorbent material like cotton and two other layers made of water-resistant material such as polypropylene.
5. AIRTIGHT MASKS CAN CAUSE SKIN IRRITATION
N95 respirators can also be made from soft silicone material, which effectively creates a seal on one’s face.
But masks that “offer relatively airtight protection” can lead to skin irritation, said Eileen Tan, a dermatologist who runs her own practice, Eileen Tan Skin Clinic and Associates.
“It may not be suitable for everyday use or for people with sensitive skin,” she added.
6. HOW YOU CAN TAKE CARE OF YOUR SKIN
Tan has seen a 15 to 20 per cent increase in the number of patients seeking help for mask-related skin problems.
One can get skin inflammation, for example, from the build-up of moisture, heat and increase in sebum production, which can lead to clogged pores, she said.
She recommends changing one’s mask every four to six hours “if you can afford to”, and taking “mask breaks” of about 15 to 30 minutes to “allow your skin to rest”.
“Consider things like a cloth mask, which is a more breathable kind of fabric (and) more comfortable,” she added.
7. KEEP GOOD MASK-WEARING HABITS
Senior consultant Kalisvar Marimuthu from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases uses five reusable masks each week.
It is important, he said, to wash one’s mask every day, as that removes not only viruses, but also saliva stains and dust particles on the mask.
He also advises against touching the front of the mask when removing it, as the chances are people would touch their nose or mouth after that.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to clarify references to airtight silicone N95 masks.