Over the last year, the acronym PPE has been thrown around a lot, but what is PPE? PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment, meaning that PPE can be any equipment that protects you from something in your environment. Personal protective equipment use is not limited to pandemics; PPE is used when participating in various activities. For example, if you’re riding a bike and wearing a helmet, your helmet is considered PPE because it protects you from a brain injury. Similarly, when you wear gloves and a coat in the snow, you’re using PPE because you’re protecting yourself from frostbite.
PPE During a Pandemic
When PPE is referenced in regards to a virus, people are usually talking about masks. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary recommendation outside of social distancing and hand washing has been wearing a properly fitted face mask. There are two main types of face masks that people can use, cloth masks and medical-grade N95 masks.
Cloth masks are the type of mask that has been recommended for the general public. They are reusable, making them less expensive over time, and they are typically more comfortable. Cloth masks mainly prevent the wearer from passing on any viruses that they may be carrying. These types of masks are effective in preventing larger virus droplets from passing on to others.
N95 masks are medical-grade masks specifically designed to protect the person wearing the mask and other people. They can trap tiny particles, which prevent the wearer from breathing in micro-particles hanging around in the air. Unfortunately, they are more uncomfortable to wear and are mainly recommended to medical professionals when their patients cannot wear masks.
The main difference between the effectiveness of cloth masks and N95 masks is the particle size that they can filter out. Since cloth masks primarily catch larger droplets from the person wearing the mask, they work the best when everyone is wearing one. On the other hand, N95 masks are specially designed to filter out micro-particles in addition to larger droplets. This allows the person wearing an N95 mask to be the only person wearing it and still be protected.
A third and less common PPE option that some have tried is a face shield. Face shields are effective during activities where you are trying to prevent larger particles from landing on your face. But, unfortunately, they cannot do any air filtering, making them primarily ineffective against a virus-like COVID-19.
Most importantly, personal protective equipment only works if it is being used and fitted correctly. Your mask must completely cover your mouth and nose to filter all the air coming in and out. It should be snug enough that there are no gaps around the edges of your mask, so the air you breathe is forced to go through the mask’s material. When you replace the mask, which you should be doing daily, only touch the ear loops. If you feel the material you’ve been breathing through and accidentally touch your face, you are neutralizing the positive effects of the mask.
At the end of the day or after using your face mask, it should go directly into either the washer if wearing a cloth mask or the trash if the mask is not reusable. While you’re wearing your mask, it is catching germs from you and others. If you keep using the same mask day after day, you continue to expose yourself to any germs that your mask may have trapped from the previous day or use. To receive the full safety benefits of your preferred PPE, you must be putting a clean mask on.
To summarize, there are plenty of PPE options for everyone depending on what they are comfortable with. Regardless of what type of mask you are using, you must use it correctly. By using your PPE the way they are intended, you are maximizing the safety benefits that you are receiving.