Protecting healthcare staff from severe acute respiratory syndrome: filtration capacity of multiple surgical masks

J Hosp Infect. 2005 Apr;59(4):365-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2004.10.013.


Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation state that healthcare workers should wear N95 masks or higher-level protection during all contact with suspected severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In areas where N95 masks are not available, multiple layers of surgical masks have been tried to prevent transmission of SARS. The in vivo filtration capacity of a single surgical mask is known to be poor. However, the filtration capacity of a combination of masks is unknown. This was a crossover trial of one, two, three and five surgical masks in six volunteers to determine the in vivo filtration efficiency of wearing more than one surgical mask. We used a Portacount to measure the difference in ambient particle counts inside and outside the masks. The best combination of five surgical masks scored a fit factor of 13.7, which is well below the minimum level of 100 required for a half face respirator. Multiple surgical masks filter ambient particles poorly. They should not be used as a substitute for N95 masks unless there is no alternative.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Equipment Design
  • Filtration / instrumentation*
  • Humans
  • Infection Control / standards
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Patient-to-Professional / prevention & control*
  • Masks / standards*
  • Particle Size
  • Prospective Studies
  • Respiratory Protective Devices / standards*
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / prevention & control*
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / transmission