Nearly a year after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, we finally have a US standard for everyday face masks. ASTM International, a voluntary standard-setting organization that offers guidance on everything from hand sanitizers to textiles, just released its Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings. A first of its kind, the standard answers the broad call we’ve seen from experts seeking an informed set of best practices for manufacturing face masks.
The standard is more specific than current guidelines like those issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its recent report about double masking. Once tested and approved for meeting ASTM’s specs, brands will be able to slap a label on their product to that end, informing shoppers that their face mask meets certain requirements — namely, that it “meets ASTM F3502,” part of the actual language you'll see on the label.
"If you go into a store and buy a mask, you generally have no idea what you’re getting,” said Dan Smith, ASTM’s VP of technical committee operations. “But if you go into a store and purchase a face mask that’s labeled, saying it meets the ASTM standard, you can understand what you’re getting and that you’re getting a certain level of protection.”
Until now, organizations like ASTM, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health only published standards for face masks used in healthcare settings, like surgical masks and N95 masks, Smith said. Ultimately, the general public will be able to judge just how effective their non-medical single use and reusable masks really are without having to rely on a brand’s word. According to ASTM, its new standards are designed to “avoid the general confusion related to barrier face covering effectiveness” by establishing specific requirements for its design, performance, labeling, user instruction, reporting and classification.
Face Mask Performance and Protection
Face masks are evaluated based on two main properties: filtration efficacy and breathability. Each property is tested on two levels.
Notably, in terms of filtration efficacy, ASTM’s standard questions whether a mask can filter out particles as small as 0.3 microns. The exact percentage of particles the mask can filter out determines its level one or level two designation. Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told us 0.3 microns makes for a “good benchmark” that’s often used to evaluate face coverings and filters (especially HEPA filters, like those experts recommend for air purifiers). He noted that 0.3 microns is smaller than the size of the respiratory droplets that could carry Covid, so ASTM’s standard is “going above and beyond” to ensure masks are protective.
Face Mask Labels
ASTM sets labeling requirements for certified masks, giving them a “stamp of approval” that people could look for on packaging while shopping, explained Adalja. He compared it to the SPF label that denotes a certain level of protection for sunscreen.
“Not all face masks are equal,” said Adalja. “By creating standards for masks for the general public, people can begin to figure out what they can wear to keep them and those around them the most protected.”
Adalja said the new ASTM label will give shoppers confidence that the mask they’re purchasing has met efficacy requirements to keep them safe, as well as now-required information for the mask user:
ASTM’s standard details the design requirements for face masks, too — much of this segment of the standard mirrors existing guidelines from the CDC:
Masks are also evaluated based on their potential reuse, testing how well face masks uphold their level of efficacy after getting cleaned the maximum of times specified by manufacturer’s care instructions
ASTM chose to include this requirement in the standard because “it is known that certain products may shrink, stretch, become distorted, or are otherwise negatively affected in their capabilities for source control and their potential for reducing the inhalation of particulate matter” after being cleaned multiple times, the association notes in its guidance. Since the CDC guides people to regularly wash face masks, ensuring their level of protection does not decrease overtime is especially important.