For all of us in Victoria, and many in the rest of Australia, the wearing of face masks has quickly become a 'new normal' - a habit thrust upon us so quickly that few of us had time to even question our choice of mask. A quick trip to the chemist for most resulted in us buying disposable surgical masks, their light-blue flotsam now rapidly littering our streets and waterways. More recently, fabric masks in various styles and levels of decoration have become popular.
But all masks are not created equal, and for a product that is now ubiquitous and hugely important for our safety and for those around us, we should expect a better quality product.
A new generation of mask technology starting to hit the market promises just that. One of the masks leading the innovation charge in the US is the CastleGrade G-Series, a completely reusable mask made from medical-grade silicone with a replaceable filter tested at a higher efficacy than N95 respirators.
The innovative G-Series silicone respirator
As a soft-silicone respirator mask, the most important feature of the G-Series is the seal it provides around the face, ensuring the air breathed by the wearer is filtered both on the way in and out. Co-founder of CastleGrade and NY-based dentist Dr Lauren Becker says that commonly used disposable and fabric masks can leak around the outside, creating a greater risk of infection transmission. The G-Series seal solves that and some practical issues. Becker says no leaks means "there is no fogging when I wear my loupes and the coated straps go around the head and don't pull at my ears."
Reusability is a key feature as well. The silicone design means the mask can easily be sterilised between exposures, most simply by wiping down with alcohol or most thoroughly in a dishwasher, boiling hot water or in an auto-clave in medical settings. The filter itself is replaceable, with 32 hours life in direct use or a week for casual use. Compared to single-use N95 respirators, the G-Series is cheaper to own after less than two weeks of use while avoiding waste.
This week CastleGrade’s masks passed the NaCl filtration challenge, exceeding the NIOSH requirement with a 98% filtration efficiency score. Further testing by Nelson Labs has demonstrated bacterial filtration efficacy (BFE) of 99.8% - meeting a higher standard than that required of widely used N95 medical respirators.
So what are the limitations of the masks we are currently wearing and is there really a need for the level of innovation masks like the G-Series provide?
Let's start with fabric masks. Certainly, they provide some level of protection and particularly as 'source control' - preventing larger droplets from spreading too far and infecting others. However, as Duke University scientists recently demonstrated, makeshift fabric protection can actually make things worse with neck-gaiters (legal under Victoria's mandatory mask laws) producing more particle spread than no face covering at all.
"We attribute this to ... the textile breaking up those big particles into many little particles,” Dr. Martin Fischer, chemist, physicist and study author, said in a video release.
More generally, fabric masks hold moisture which reduces their effectiveness. Moisture reduces the already limited filtration effectiveness of most fabrics and helps viruses like COVID stay active for days, unless the fabric is fully washed and sterilised which is not easy to do between exposures.
And like those surgical masks, which may provide a greater degree of direct protection than most fabric masks, neither provide a seal for the wearer allowing air to escape around the sides. For glass-wearers this means, annoyingly, spending most of the time with impaired vision from fogging. But worse, it means there is a pathway for virus droplets to spread both in and out of the mask.
"More masks than jellyfish" -coronavirus waste ends up in oceans
There's the waste, too. The Guardian recently reported huge volumes of disposable masks washing up on shorelines in Europe with this surge in ocean pollution looming as a threat similar to ocean plastics.
Mask waste (image credit: The Guardian)
The N95 surgical respirator is the gold standard of current masks, something confirmed by the Duke University study. However, Governments are still refraining from recommending the general public wear this level of protection to avoid possible shortages in the healthcare system. Even if that wasn't an issue, these masks are expensive at around $5 each, yet still disposable as they cannot be readily disinfected after use. The cost quickly adds up while mask-wearing is a daily activity!
The CastleGrade G-Series masks provides a level of protection comparable to the N95, in a much more user-friendly design that solves the growing problem of mask waste. A sustainable solution providing greater safety to everyone is a product I can get excited by.
I am delighted to announce the launch of CastleGrade in Australia, with product shipping from the middle of September. Follow us at @castlegradeaus for further updates and help us get our message out there!