Fashionable masks may look good - but how can you tell if they protect against COVID-19?

Fashionable masks may look good - but how can you tell if they protect against COVID-19?

People wearing face masks in Singapore - Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) of the COVID-19 outbreak (1)
People wearing protective face masks while crossing a road on May 24, 2021, during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert). (File photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

SINGAPORE: For those who worry about how they look, a reusable cloth mask that comes with a unique pattern or a branding logo offers more potential than a plain, disposable alternative. 

But it can be more difficult to determine whether a reusable mask picked up in a clothes shop or online can protect the user, compared with a single-use mask that has typically passed certain certifications to be sold. 

With the new mask recommendations from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and Ministry of Health (MOH), those who choose to wear reusable masks over single-use masks may wonder if their masks meet the mark. 

On May 18, MOH recommended that members of the public wear masks with better filtration capabilities with community cases of COVID-19 on the rise, likely due to new variants of the coronavirus. The reusable masks issued by the People’s Association and Temasek Foundation have good filtration efficiency, the Health Ministry said. 

But what about the many brands that have launched their own reusable masks over the past year? CNA reached out to several that are popular to find out whether their masks meet the recommended standards. 

Reusable masks Infographic

READ: Masks with better filtration capability recommended as new COVID-19 variants spread

LOOK FOR BACTERIAL FILTRATION EFFICIENCY

Ms Joyce Tan, marketing director of Uniqlo Singapore said that Uniqlo’s AIRism mask - launched in August last year - has three layers. 

Its outer layer is a “smooth” AIRism fabric and its inner layer a “highly-breathable mesh”. The middle layer includes a non-woven filter with a bacterial filtration efficiency of 99 per cent, blocking airborne droplets and particles carrying bacteria and pollen.

The packaging also notes that the bacterial filtration efficiency of the filter portion drops to 95 per cent after the mask is machine washed 20 times. 

This is in line with HSA’s and MOH’s recommendations. Masks that meet the requirement for medical and surgical standards have a bacterial filtration efficiency of 95 per cent - blocking 95 per cent of droplets it is exposed to.

A mask with higher bacterial filtration efficiency is more effective in preventing bacteria-containing droplets from reaching the wearer. This figure is often indicated on the packaging or product description of the masks sold. 

According to Ms Tan, Uniqlo’s masks have passed the ASTM F2101, a bacterial efficiency test, and the Pollen particulate collection efficiency test at the Kaken Test Centre General Incorporated Foundation.

The Kaken Test Centre evaluates the performance of functional materials, including textiles, and is authorised by the Japanese government.

Uniqlo Airism Mask
Uniqlo's AIRism mask has three layers, with a bacterial filtration efficacy of 99 per cent. (Photo: Ang Hwee Min)

Local brand Beyond the Vines launched its reusable masks last year. The masks are made of “super soft jersey material”, a rayon blend, said the brand’s spokesperson. 

The mask has two layers and includes a pocket for filters. Every mask will come with two pieces of PM2.5 activated carbon filter inserts from May 25, said the spokesperson. 

PM2.5 refers to an established standard - these masks target airborne particulate matter of 2.5 microns. These filters typically have several layers, including non-woven polypropylene, meltblown fabric and activated carbon.

“Our masks are not medical or surgical grade masks, but it may help prevent face-touching and reduce the transmission of germs,” said the spokesperson, noting that the masks meet the new specifications if worn with the filter insert.

“When we designed our masks, we designed them for ease of everyday use in our tropical climate. Since the recent Heightened Alert situation, we have included two face mask filters into every mask set to increase its function but the soft jersey fabric used still makes it easy and soft on the skin.”

Beyond the Vines reusable mask
Beyond the Vines' reusable mask. (Photo: Beyond the Vines)

Watsons Singapore carries reusable masks with a bacterial filtration efficiency of 95 per cent and above, said a spokesperson for the brand. This follows the call from authorities on May 18 to use masks that offer better filtration capabilities and protection. 

“The reusable mask brands that we have always carried with minimal BFE 95 per cent include Ultra Masks, which are widely available for purchase online and in store. We will also be ensuring sufficient stock to cater to customers’ needs,” said the spokesperson. 

READ: Which masks have good filtration efficiency? What you need to know about the updated mask guidelines

WHAT SHOULD YOUR REUSABLE MASK HAVE?

For individuals checking whether their reusable masks at home meet the mark, infectious diseases expert Professor Dale Fisher from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine said the masks should have three layers, but minimally two.

The outer layer should be made of a water-resistant material like polyester, while the inner layer should be water absorbent, such as cotton, he noted. If the mask has three layers, the middle layer should be a non-woven fabric like polypropylene.

The mask should have a thickness of 68 grams per square metre of fabric, or it should have at least two layers if it is thinner.

In addition, the mask should be a “snug fit” covering the mouth and the nose, said Professor Fisher. The middle layer, or filters, “adds benefit” and should be made of non-woven fabric like spunbond polypropylene.

However, he noted that masks are not a substitute for safe distancing, hand washing and not touching the face.

Reusable and washable masks must also be washed daily, said NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine Professor of Infectious Diseases Professor Laurent Renia. 

Touch only the straps and not the surface of the mask when removing it, and wash hands after disposing of a used mask, he added. 

Those who are going to an enclosed space with people in close proximity should wear a mask with “high filtration capability”, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force Lawrence Wong had said when he announced the new mask recommendations. 

“It's not just wearing a cloth mask, but wear one with high filtration capability - a surgical mask or one of those with the filter inserts,” he added. 

"That is important because of the latest evidence about the nature of the various strains, how transmissible they are and the fact that the spread can happen through aerosolised particles."

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and its developments

Download our app or subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates on the coronavirus outbreak: https://cna.asia/telegram

Source: CNA/hw

Bookmark