3-Ply Masks: A Brief Overview
While some areas of the world have been wearing masks in public to prevent the transmission of disease for years, 3-ply face masks have never been discussed so publicly in the West as they are today.
Because of this, there remains some confusion about 3-ply face masks, how much protection they offer, and whether cloth masks are a better choice. With that in mind, here are the key things you need to know about 3-ply face masks:
What Are 3-Ply Face Masks?
3-ply face masks are loose-fitting and disposable masks that offer a barrier between the wearer and airborne contaminants. It’s important to note that, while surgical masks are considered to be personal protective equipment (PPE), they don’t completely prevent the wearer from inhaling airborne droplets.
3-ply face masks are, as you might expect, made up of three distinct layers, which is usually a melt-blown polymer between two layers of non-woven fabric. This polymer, which is usually polypropylene, is the filter that stops large droplets from entering or exiting the mask.
3-Ply Face Mask Functions
3-ply face masks both protect the wearer from inhaling any large airborne droplets and prevent those droplets from spreading to those around them. They’re regularly used in healthcare settings where the wearer may be at risk of splashes, splatter, or sprays that can contain contaminants like bodily fluids, viruses, and bacteria.
These face masks are designed to be disposable, allowing for doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to replace them between patients to maintain a sterile environment.
3-ply face masks are also widely used in the public sphere due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly in states and cities where mask-wearing is mandatory. Because of their low cost, 3-ply face masks are often supplied by employers to protect their frontline workers.
In countries like Japan and China, 3-ply face masks are regularly worn in public. This is commonly to protect the wearer from air pollution, protect the wearer from disease, and prevent them from spreading any airborne transmissible illnesses they may have.
3-Ply Face Mask vs. Surgical Mask
An important distinction between 3-ply face masks and surgical masks is that surgical masks are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The name 3-ply face masks simply refers to the style of mask, meaning that a 3-ply surgical face mask has to be approved by the FDA to be considered as such. Otherwise, a 3-ply face mask might be referred to as a procedural mask, or one that should only be used outside of a surgical setting.
3-Ply Face Mask Limitations
Because 3-ply face masks are relatively loose-fitting, they don’t offer full protection against airborne contaminants and pollution. Instead, they’re designed only to offer protection against large droplets, such as those caused by splatters, splashes, or spray, and they offer some degree of filtration of droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking.
It’s entirely possible that airborne contaminants can still be inhaled by the wearer, particularly if the 3-ply face mask isn’t worn correctly or isn’t fitted closely to the face. In addition, if the wearer touches the oustide of the face mask and then another object or a part of their body, the 3-ply face mask can become a vector for transmission.
It’s also worth noting that the CDC don’t consider 3-ply face masks, or 3-ply surgical face masks, to be effective respiratory protection in a medical setting. That means that the wearer should continue, where possible, to observe social distancing in combination with wearing a 3-ply face mask to truly reduce their risk of inhaling airborne particles.
3-Ply Face Masks vs. Cloth Face Masks
Cloth face masks have become increasingly popular because they’re fashionable, reusable, and often can be equipped with additional filters for an extra level of protection. For people who are concerned about the environment and plastic waste, they are an appealing alternative to single-use 3-ply masks. For people who can sew, it also offers a cost-effective solution, and means that cloth masks can be customized for a closer fit.
However, cloth masks need to be properly constructed to offer the same benefits of a 3-ply face mask. Studies show that for a cloth mask to be effective, it needs to be made of at least three layers of thick cotton or, ideally, have a polypropylene layer between two layers of cotton. As with 3-ply face masks, cloth masks aren’t as effective if they don’t fit closely to the face.
Cloth masks should also be considered contaminated after every use, and should be machine washed at 60 degrees before they are used again. This means that you may need to buy multiple cloth face masks, particularly if you regularly leave the house, which can make them a less affordable option than disposable 3-ply face masks.
3-Ply Face Masks vs. Respirators
3-ply face masks are only intended for low-risk clinical use, which is why they’re an affordable and accessible option for both doctors and public use alike. In comparison, respiratory masks are considerably more expensive, but that’s because they’re proven to filter 95% of airborne contaminants, provided that they’re fitted correctly. These have to be approved for use by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
3-ply face masks designed for public use don’t have to be made from heavy-duty materials, mainly because they don’t necessarily have to be regulated by the FDA. That means that 3-ply face mask manufacturers can keep costs down for consumers who want a disposable face covering for wearing in public, ensuring that the more effective respiratory protection is available for healthcare workers in higher-risk situations.