Surgical masks are an important barrier in surgery, to prevent fluids from reaching the face of the wearer as well as limiting the flow of any fluids from the wearer into the immediate area around them. The simple design is flexible enough to be able to fit any face, making them suitable for a range of situations where people of different face sizes and shapes may be wearing them.
Surgical masks are graded in a number of ways, and one of the most well-known and highly regarded of these grading systems is the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards of level 1, 2, or 3. The ASTM standards describe the level of barrier protection offered by masks as follows;
Level 1: Low barrier protection
Level 2: Moderate barrier protection
Level 3: High barrier protection
The surgical face masks are tested in laboratory conditions for their breathability, fluid resistance, particulate filtration, bacterial filtration and flammability. If the mask fails any one of the criteria for their level, then is assessed at the lower level. It is important to remember that as all of the tests are done in laboratory conditions, they can perform differently if the masks are used in the field and subject to other challenges such as excessive amounts of water or very high temperatures.
While these masks are described as surgical masks they can be used for a variety of tasks, including non-medical protection, where barrier protection is useful. For example, gardeners often find them useful to help prevent inhaling dust and dirt when doing gardening tasks and they are also often used in manual tasks around the home. When planning PPE (personal protective equipment) for a task it is important to assess the exact nature of the risk in the task so that you can select the ideal level of protection.
It is also important to remember however that this style of mask only provides limited protection from fine aerosols and vapours, so if you have a task with a risk in this area, then you may need to consider another form of protection such as a respirator.