Reusable antiviral mask – who should use it, how to use it and how to sterilize it?

More and more often when we face the possibility of viral infections we use masks to protect ourselves. There are many types of masks on the market, but do we use them as intended? Which mask should we choose and under what circumstances it is advisable to use it? We should also know how to choose the right mask, how to take care of it and how to protect yourself and your loved ones from infection? 

What viral infection is?

Viral infection is caused by the presence of viruses in the organism. Viruses are the most common cause of respiratory infections and therefore the reason of sick leaves. They usually cause upper respiratory tract symptoms. They can possibly be the cause of pandemics and epidemics as well. Viral infections occur mostly in the autumn and early spring periods. These diseases cannot be treated with antibiotics that only affect bacteria. In case of minor infections antibiotics may even weaken the organism, therefore do more harm. What is more, using them too often can lead to much more serious side effects – including secondary bacterial infections which develop easily in case of such decrease in body immunity, as well as the development of bacterial resistance to previously effective antibiotics. In most cases, the best cure for minor viral infections is rest, sleep, adequate hydration and treatment of symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) or antiviral drugs. These drugs are designed to strengthen the immune system and inhibit the process of virus multiplication in body cells. The most common viral infections include seasonal influenza (in the UK on average 600 people die annually due to flu complications), herpes labialis (cold sores), childhood illnesses such as chickenpox, rubella (eliminated in 2016 in Great Britain), mumps, hepatitis B (in the UK 1 in 350 people are thought to have chronic hepatitis B), HIV infection and the currently spreading Chinese coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Transmission takes place in different ways, depending on the virus type. It may happen either directly or indirectly, through contact with the patient or the carrier via the droplet route, through damaged skin, as well as through infected surfaces and contact with infectious substance – saliva, blood and other body fluids. Because size of viruses is much smaller than bacteria, they can also penetrate through mucous membranes and occupy many organs at once. The virus penetrates the body and attacks the cells. It is followed by virus’ multiplication and formation of posterity viruses (virions) takes place. Infection may result in temporary or permanent disturbance of the physiological functions of the cells, but the disease does not always occur. There are many factors that determine whether the disease would appear or not. One of them is the efficiency of the immune system (people with immune deficiencies, like AIDS patients, the elderly, are more severely affected). Among other factors we can find the time of exposure to the infectious agent, virulence of the virus, the route of infection, as well as the clinical condition of the patient. Viral infection can be localized or systemic. One of the characteristics of viral infection is its abrupt onset. Symptoms of infection appear quickly and grow quickly. The most common symptoms of viral diseases include:

  • fever,
  • shivers,
  • general weakness,
  • headaches,
  • joint pains,
  • muscle pains,
  • weakening of appetite,
  • runny nose,
  • cough,
  • sore throat.

After infection, specific immunity develops in organism, but due to the rich variety of common viruses, it does not protect against further infections. As for the most common complications of the so called “colds”, they include inflammation of the paranasal sinuses, middle ear, larynx, bronchi, lungs, as well as subsequent bacterial infections.

Who should use an antivirus mask?

In this case all experts agree with each other – do not use masks as preventive measure, to “protect yourself from the virus”. Using antiviral mask does not protect against possible infection. Only sick people should wear them in order not to spread viruses via droplet route of infection – which means, to protect the others. Masks should also be used by healthy carriers (or people suspected of being infected). Masks are only effective in combination with other protective measures, especially washing hands with soap or alcohol-based disinfectants. 

Viruses and bacteria being collected on the surface of the mask

The World Health Organization informs that the mask does not protect against infection, and can even be a source of infection if not used correctly. Viruses and bacteria accumulate on the surface of the masks, so it is important to use both disposable and reusable masks properly. If a virus or other health-threatening microorganism is left on a disposable mask, touched, and then hands are not washed, infection may occur.

Incorrect use of masks

The proper usage of disposable masks and proper disposal of used ones are equally important. Before applying the mask wash your hands thoroughly for at least 30 seconds with water and soap or alcohol-based detergent. If you are wearing a “surgical” mask, you need to locate the metal wire, which should fit to your nose and upper face. The mask should tightly cover the nose, mouth and chin – the gap between skin and material is supposed to be as small as possible. While wearing the mask, you do not touch it, and if you do, you should wash your hands thoroughly. The way you take off the mask is also important. It should be removed by holding the rear part without touching the front part and then discarded in a closed container so that even those who throw away the waste would not be exposed to any microorganisms present on the mask surface. After removing the mask, you should also clean your hands with alcohol-based disinfectant or wash them with water and soap.

Multiple use of disposable masks

In addition to the previously mentioned rules, it is also important that disposable masks are actually used once. Due to their construction, they quickly become damp. Such a mask is an ideal place for the development of viruses – they feel excellent in a cool and humid environment and can survive many hours in such conditions. Wearing one and the same mask all day long defeats the purpose.

Lack of knowledge of how to take care of reusable masks

In addition to the popular disposable masks used by beauticians, dentists and doctors, there are also reusable masks which, after proper preparation and sterilization, still perform their protective functions. Most of reusable masks do not protect against the transmission of pathogenic microorganisms though. They prevent the respiratory system from penetration of dusts. They are designed for many professional groups that are in danger of inhaling the dusts on a daily basis, including manicure and pedicure specialists. Such reusable masks also have to be taken care of, but not everyone knows how.

Types of antiviral masks

There are many types of antiviral masks available on the market. They differ in construction – they are made of different materials, and some of them have special filters, which protect the respiratory system even from the smallest particles.

Disposable surgical masks

These are the most popular and most available masks; they provide basic protection. They are designed to protect against microorganisms with a diameter greater than 100 μm. Filtration degree standards (BFE) are defined in European standard 14683. It divides surgical masks into types: I, IR, II, IIR. The use of the mask reduces the risk of the patient transferring bacteria and viruses while sneezing and coughing. Surgical masks are odorless. They are made of filter material. They are excellent for preventing the spread of infections and contamination. Thanks to the high air permeability, they enable easy breathing and at the same time provide a high filter barrier. Such disposable masks are made of non-woven fabric, they are flexible and durable, and depending on the manufacturer – they might be sterile or non-sterile.

Type II surgical masks

The masks belonging to this group are the most commonly used ones in operating rooms. Their BFE bacterial filtration rate is at least 98%. They consist of three layers of polypropylene non-woven fabric, and if they are used according to the manufacturer's recommendations, they protect both the patient and the doctor. At the same time they do not impede breathing. Thanks to their structure they also adapt to the shape of the face. It is important to remember though that they should be used with other elements of personal protective equipment.

Reusable masks and dust masks

Half masks with an N95 class filter are known as multiple use masks. According to their degree of filtration, we divide them into 3 types: FFP1, FFP2, FFP3 (the one with the highest efficiency, it filters at least 99% of airborne particles). These masks are made to protect against the ingress of microorganisms, dusts, pollutants or allergens into the airways. They are called anti-smog, anti-dust or medical protective masks. They are also marked with the letter R, meaning that they are reusable, or NR, which means they can be used only once, up to a maximum of 8 hours. If they are used long, the absorbed particles (for example dust) make breathing difficult. If used over a long period of time, they may contribute to immunosuppression. If you use this type of mask, remember to change the filter regularly. According to research, they do not provide more efficient protection against microorganisms than ordinary surgical masks. Reusable masks shall have an N99 class filter. Masks of filtration class FFP2 with antibacterial properties are used similarly to dust half masks. They can be used by healthcare professionals, in dissecting-rooms, veterinary clinics as well as archives and mills. In addition, the filter fabric used in these half masks is also used in ventilation devices, air conditioners, as well as HEPA filters. No mask gives 100% protection against virus infection. The infection can even occur while opening your eyes. Therefore, remember also to wash your hands frequently with soap and use antibacterial gels in places where you cannot wash your hands under running water.

Sterilization of a reusable antiviral mask?

In an era of shortage of masks and their mass use, maintaining their sterility is an absolute priority. The Central Sterile Services Department confirms that masks can be sterilized – of course only reusable masks. However, they must be properly prepared beforehand. How do you do that? 

Instructions for use and sterilization of reusable masks

  1. Remove the mask according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  2. Reusable components should be cleaned, disinfected and/or sterilized according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  3. Clean, disinfect and/or sterilize the wearing parts in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.
  4. After disinfecting and/or sterilizing the wearing parts, place them in a container designed for hazardous materials.
  5. Hand over the collected hazardous materials for disposal.

Disposable masks can also be sterilized. In order to not pose a threat to the environment, they can be burned, but it is not ecological. Sterilizing the masks before discarding is possible in the ENBIO S autoclave.

Proceeding with a disposable mask in order to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses:

  1. Remove the mask according to the manufacturer's instructions or by using disposable gloves.
  2. Place the worn mask in a sleeve or sterilization package together with the gloves.
  3. Undergo high temperature sterilization.
  4. After sterilization, place the package in a container for hazardous materials.
  5. Collected hazardous materials should be disposed of.

Masks marked N95 cannot be sterilized – after sterilization they would no longer perform their safety functions. However, as in the case of disposable masks, it is possible to sterilize them in the autoclave before throwing them away, because a mask simply thrown to trash can be a threat to other people.