Technology

Can I wash my surgical masks?

Surgical masks are considered single-use medical devices. However, they retain their filtering property and breathability even after 10 washes. At least that’s what a French study published in October in the scientific journal Chemosphere concludes. Should you put the masks on for your next load? Not so fast …

After a year and a half of laboratory tests, the team of researchers has shown that propylene masks washed up to 10 times in hot water with detergent still meet European standards for bacterial filtration and breathability. More precisely, they retain a filtration capacity greater than 98% of the particles with a size of 3 microns.

Once washed, they are still even more efficient than most filter fabric masks, that is, those certified in category 1. These face covers, which are made in particular of cotton and generally have three layers, must guarantee a superior filtration efficiency. At 90% for the same particle size.

For this reason, the study authors advocate the reuse of the surgical mask in situations of prolonged contact, such as in the cinema or on public transport.

This measure would not only have a health and economic advantage, but also an ecological one. According to the researchers, the reuse of surgical masks would allow dividing their consumption by 10.

Properties lost in washing

However, the study authors do not recommend washing the mask to medical personnel working in the operating room, since the material, once washed, loses its protective properties against splashed drops (blood, for example). This does not prevent it from continuing to be effective for the general population, according to them.

In addition, the results reveal that, once washed, the surgical mask drastically loses its effectiveness in filtering the finest particles, that is, aerosols smaller than 1 micron in size, which could correspond to the size of the virus.

When to throw them away?

If your study focused on 10 washes, “it is possible that the mask lasts longer,” Philippe Cinquin, scientific coordinator of the Grenoble CHU Clinical Research Center and co-author of the study, told Le Monde newspaper. But how do you know when to throw it away? “The answer is probably ‘when it doesn’t fit the face well,'” the researchers write, as fit is essential for the mask to function properly.

They also advise to trust its appearance: when it is damaged and has, for example, lint, it is better to throw it away. “This pilling causes uncomfortable wear and can define the end of the mask’s useful life, even if the filtration properties are still effective,” they continue.

According to them, the effectiveness and the useful life of the mask are mainly linked to its most fragile points, namely the nose adjustment bar and the elastics and their welding points, places that the user must check. To determine if the mask can still be used. .

The wash does not pass the North American standard

What to think of these results? We asked Loïc Wingert, aerosol and filtration specialist at the Robert-Sauvé Research Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IRSST). Although he considers this study to be of quality, he points out that the conclusions can hardly be applied in Quebec due to the North American quality standard (ASTM). The latter differs from the European standards that manufacturers must meet to market their masks.

“European and North American standards have the same requirements for bacterial filtration efficiency at 3 microns, mask breathability, and fluid projection. But, unlike Europe, the North American standard requires an additional test: the mask must efficiently filter ultrafine particles of 0.1 microns (or 100 nanometers) ”, explains Loïc Wingert.

However, if the study shows that washing has no impact on the ability to filter particles with a size of 1 to 3 microns, it is different for the finer particles. The latter are no longer effectively filtered after a single wash. Result: Your mask, washed in the washing machine, would no longer meet the ASTM standard required in Quebec, as noted by the IRSST expert.

Other less convincing studies

Other recent studies have also examined the issue of surgical mask washing. The National Institute of Public Health of Quebec (INSPQ) reviews it in this literature review. It concludes that the studies are few and their results are variable.

“Most studies are more likely to show that there is a loss of efficiency and filtration capacity [des particules ultrafines] after washing. When we look at all the data, and not just the European study, we see that it is still a bit early to tell the population that they would be protected if they washed their masks ”, summarizes Dr. Chantal Sauvageau, a medical specialist at the INSPQ.

Find BNQ Certified Reusable Masks

For now, the recommendations remain the same: opt for a quality mask, that is, a surgical mask that meets the ASTM standard. Once dirty or wet, this mask should be disposed of or recycled where possible, as Dr. Sauvageau reminds us.

BNQ certified cloth masks are also considered quality by INSPQ as they meet quality standards. Although they are not yet widely used on the market, they attest to better protection than a washed surgical mask or non-certified fabric face cover, according to Loïc Wingert of the IRSST.

>> Read also: Procedural masks: can we get rid of them in an eco-responsible way? and What mask for your child?

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