8 Things You May Not Know About Disposable Masks

No, they’re not biodegradable, and there’s actually one type of disposable mask that’s dangerous. A doctor answers our burning questions.

As we settle into the COVID-19 pandemic and get used to a new way of life, we now have choices, choices, choices when it comes to mask wearing. Disposable or reusable? Sports masks or fancy anti-ageing masks? 8days.sg got some advice about disposable surgical masks from Dr Teo Wan Lin, dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre.

#1: Disposable surgical masks are not biodegradable.
Says Dr Teo: “Disposable masks are usually made from polypropylene, which is a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes hundreds of years to break down. This is an issue as well with oceanic pollution when microplastics are leached and enter the food chain.” We’d say think twice before you reach for a surgical mask that you’ll dump after one use, even if they may be cheaply and easily available now and lighter and more convenient in that you don’t have to wash them. Imagine the huge amount of non-biodegradable masks there will be in landfills at the end of this pandemic, if everyone wears a disposable mask a day.

#2: In a public setting, it’s not necessary for the average person to use disposable masks.
“It’s absolutely not environmentally-friendly for us to wear surgical masks, and it’s also unnecessary,” says Dr Teo. “In a public setting, wearing of fabric masks is more appropriate. A cloth mask is intended to trap droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes. If everyone wears a cloth mask, this can help reduce the spread of the virus by people who have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic. Surgical and N95 masks may be in short supply and should be reserved for health care providers. When using cloth face coverings and masks however, care should be taken to use tightly woven materials that will effectively catch droplets.” 

disposable masks what to know 8days sg4 data
We now know a lot about masks of all kinds, but there's always more to learn. 

#3: Disposable masks cannot be washed and reused.
In the early days of the pandemic here, we all knew people who washed and reused their surgical masks. But now that cloth masks are everywhere and have been given out by the government as well, there is no need or excuse to do that.

#4: Yes, surgical masks expire.
Those who hoarded a million masks (and other things during the Circuit Breaker) should know you can’t keep your masks forever. According to Dr Teo, “Under proper storage conditions in dry and cool environments, the labelled expiration date is usually about 3 years from the date of manufacture. This is of course a recommendation, and tests can always be performed at the end of the expiration date to recertify the function of the material.”

#5: Thicker masks are not better.
Thicker layers mean better protection, right? Not really. Says Dr Teo, “The key feature of a 3-ply surgical mask is the presence of the following layers — the outer water repellant layer, a middle meltblown layer which helps to trap respiratory droplets and an inner soft absorbent layer.” As long as there are those three layers, thickness does not matter.

#6:  Yes, it’s okay to throw your surgical mask in the dustbin.
“In the context of surgical masks being used in a healthcare setting only, such masks may be regarded as biohazard waste in high risk environments, along with other PPE. There is no need for members of the public to use surgical masks, and if they do, throwing the mask in the dustbin is a logical way of disposing of it,” says Dr Teo. We’d add that it should be thrown neatly and properly into the bin, preferably wrapped up, and not left hanging from the edge of the bin such that someone else has to touch it, and should definitely not be thrown on the floor.

#7: There’s no official guideline on how to store your mask — surgical or reusable — when you’re eating or drinking, but here are some ideas.
Says Dr Teo: “Removing your mask for separate storage (as is the case for N95 and surgical masks in healthcare, stored in a clean Ziploc bag) increases environmental contamination and is difficult while exercising. It is realistic to recommend the quick act of looping it under the jawline so it can be quickly re-worn. The jawline prevents the mask from falling off and the need for frequent adjustment (i.e. touching the surface of the mask). The other observed method of dangling it off one ear leaves the biofluid-stained inner fabric exposed to the environment.”

disposable masks what to know 8days sg5 data
Some types of masks, such as the N95 masks with valves, can do more harm than good. Choose your mask carefully.

#8: Beware of using certain types of N95 masks with valves, as they do not prevent the wearer’s droplets from spreading.

According to Dr Teo, “there are N95 masks with valves that are designed to block the user from inhaling PM2.5 particulate matter — outdoor pollutants and dust, for example — rather than prevent airborne transmission of viruses. The valves are meant to reduce humidity and provide additional comfort for the user. In the case of the COVID pandemic, such masks are dangerous because it is a one-way valve which allows the wearer’s respiratory droplets to spread uninhibited to the environment. The concept of the wearing of cloth masks is meant to stop such droplet transmission, given that asymptomatic carriers of COVID exist widely. Wearing a homemade cloth mask or any other fabric covering that catches one’s droplets would be recommended over such a mask with a valve, which actually facilitates the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr Teo is particularly worried about erroneous info on social media which recommend such masks as comfortable alternatives with “better breathability” than fabric face masks, as well as certain masks being marketed as “N95 filter sports masks”, which is being sold in sports shops. She says, “The medical consensus currently is to avoid wearing face masks altogether when exercising, as the lack of oxygen may be dangerous for certain individuals. The valves [in such N95 filter sports masks] certainly help with increased comfort and breathability for the individual, but have zero relevance in the current context of pandemic control.”

Photos: Celine Tan / 8days.sg 

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