After almost a year of wearing face masks due to COVID-19 – with seemingly endless options to choose from – there is now (finally!) a standard in place that helps consumers make smarter purchases, and lets brands know if their face coverings are actually effective before selling them.
Up until now, designers and lifestyle brands have been making face masks without any experience in personal protective equipment (PPE), so there’s been no clear way to know which ones are safest when you shop. In fact, the new standard was created in response to the demand for non-PPE materials in face masks since the early days of the novel coronavirus. This new standard (ASTM F3502: Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings) outlines performance guidelines for disposable and reusable face coverings that focus on three main aspects: protection, comfort and re-use potential.
The Good Housekeeping Institute plays an active role in ASTM International, an organization made up of industry experts that develops safety and performance standards. The fiber scientists in our Textiles Lab and health editors thoroughly reviewed all of the technical specifications in this new face mask standard and attended a virtual event run by its technical contacts, including representatives from the CDC. We also interviewed Jeffrey Stull, President of International Personal Protection, Inc. and one of the standard's developers, to break down exactly what you need to know about the new criteria – and whether your existing face masks are up to par.
First, how do I know if my current mask is protective?
By this point in the pandemic, many people have purchased their fair share of face masks. While there’s no way to know if they would meet the current standard without formal lab testing, Stull advises that nonwoven textiles inside cloth masks provide better filtration than woven cloths alone. “This is because nonwoven materials are generally more efficient in the way that they are constructed,” shares Stull. “While it is expected that several cloth-based reusable face coverings can meet the standard, products based on nonwoven materials, whether as an insert to a cloth face covering or as a separate product, are likely to provide higher levels of performance.”
To break down the mask materials further:
Nonwoven textiles are a web of randomly oriented fibers that can catch particles yet still feel breathable, and we've suggested using one as a filtration layer in masks since the onset of the pandemic. You use nonwovens every day in things like tea bags or dryer sheets, but any that are sewn inside a mask should be washable. If your face mask does not say it's made with a nonwoven filter, you can elevate your protection by layering a disposable mask (like this one) underneath it.
Woven fabrics (like bed sheets) are made of interlacing yarns with tiny holes where they meet, which is why the CDC suggests multiple layers of tightly woven fabric to add more protection for cloth-only masks.
Knit fabrics (like T-shirts) are also made of yarns, but they’re looped together to stretch, which could allow particles to get through.
Another focus of the standard is on protection against leakage, meaning the mask should have a secure fit without air escaping around the edges. Any airflow should be through the fabric itself instead of around the sides. We’ve found that masks with metal strips at the nose help provide a more secure fit.
It’s also important to note that all face masks have a shelf life. Between regular wear and tear and cleaning your mask, it’ll lose its protection over time. If you’ve been wearing and washing the same mask for months, it’s a good idea to consider buying a new one for better protection. Plus, it's safe to assume we'll be wearing them for quite some time, especially given that Dr. Fauci recently said Americans could still be wearing face masks in 2022.
Do all face masks have to follow this standard?
No, it’s voluntary. The benefit is that it lets brands show consumers that their face covering meets acceptable levels of filtration and breathability. It also provides a point of reference to compare the various types face masks on the market.
What should I look for when I shop?
The main thing to look for is the wording “Meets ASTM F3502." The standard is relatively new so it may take some time for this to hit the mainstream, yet Stull shared that “within days of the standard being published, there have been industry claims for products meeting the new standard.” That’s suspicious given that the masks need to be tested by an accredited lab and follow a good deal of labeling requirements.
If you want to make sure that the mask is truly compliant and not falsely advertised, you can double check the labeling on the packaging, which is one of the specifications to meet the standard. This includes the manufacturer’s name and address, country of origin, model and materials, along with the date of manufacturing, expiration date, and other specs like whether it’s reusable or not. It also needs to include user instructions on fit, how to wear, how to clean, when it should be replaced, and any other cautions or limitations.
Lastly, you can always ask to see a copy of the test report. While this is not a requirement of the F3502 standard, Stull shares that “if a customer requests the data, the manufacturer should provide the information to show that they comply with the standard.”
What does it mean if a face mask meets the standard?
The standard is very upfront about what it does and does not cover. Rather than including guidelines around materials and design specifications, it focuses on testing performance. In the ASTM briefing we attended, developers specified that they purposely put very minimal design requirements to allow for innovation.
The standard covers:
Leakage: There are ways to measure mask leakage in a lab setting, but the experts behind the standard decided that it’s too arbitrary based on the fit of the wearer. Instead, brands must submit a statement to show how it’s designed to be close-fitting.
Filtration: This one is especially important because there are lots of filtration tests out there, and some are more lenient than others. Any face masks with claims like “blocks 95% of particles” should be taken lightly because it’s based on the particle size and the flow rate of the test, which can greatly vary. The new standard uses what they refer to as the “best test” for filtration efficiency and has two classifications that should be specified on the packaging: Level 1 (or F1) at 20% efficiency and Level 2 (or F2) at 50% efficiency. ASTM experts advise not to worry about the 20% efficiency seeming low compared to others on the market because the test is much more robust.
Breathability: The standard includes airflow resistance tests to show how easy it is to breathe through the fabric. Like filtration, it has Level 1 (B1) and Level 2 (B2), which is more breathable. Each mask will have a separate filtration and breathability classification.
Labeling: As mentioned above when reviewing what to look for, the standard includes relaying all relevant information about the mask to consumers, including how to wear and take care of it.
The standard does NOT cover:
Antimicrobial and antiviral claims: Any antimicrobial additive is technically a pesticide and falls under regulations from the EPA. We’ve seen these claims in our reviews of face masks over the past year, and we’ve found them to be misleading about offering better protection against SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It’s unclear when you shop just how much of the antimicrobial ingredient is used in the fabric and whether small amounts can still be effective without proper testing.
Respirators or medical face masks: These are not the same thing as the fabric face masks that have become popular during COVID-19, and they already have their own standards from ASTM. A respirator is defined by ASTM as “Personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to protect the wearer from inhalation of hazardous atmospheres,” while a medical face mask is designed to protect “from contact with blood and other body fluids during medical procedures.” The new standard is solely for barrier face coverings, defined as covering the nose and mouth “with the primary purpose of providing source control and to provide a degree of particulate filtration to reduce the amount of inhaled particulate matter” – i.e., to protect both you and others around you.
The developers of the standard also shared during their presentation that the intention is to evolve the standard over time as new information becomes available, and they hope to build a database with approved masks. Stull also adds, “Our hope is to shortly come out with a checklist that may enable consumers to be even further informed about how to judge products as being compliant with the standard.”
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