Optical microscopic study of surface morphology and filtering efficiency of face masks

PeerJ. 2019 Jun 26;7:e7142. doi: 10.7717/peerj.7142. eCollection 2019.


Background: Low-cost face masks made from different cloth materials are very common in developing countries. The cloth masks (CM) are usually double layered with stretchable ear loops. It is common practice to use such masks for months after multiple washing and drying cycles. If a CM is used for long time, the ear loops become stretched. The loop needs to be knotted to make the mask loop fit better on the face. It is not clear how washing and drying and stretching practices change the quality of a CM. The particulate matter (PM) filtering efficiency of a mask depends on multiple parameters, such as pore size, shape, clearance, and pore number density. It is important to understand the effect of these parameters on the filtering efficiency.

Methods: We characterized the surface of twenty different types of CMs using optical image analysis method. The filtering efficiency of selected cloth face masks was measured using the particle counting method. We also studied the effects of washing and drying and stretching on the quality of a mask.

Results: The pore size of masks ranged from 80 to 500 μm, which was much bigger than particular matter having diameter of 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5) and 10 μm or less (PM10) size. The PM10 filtering efficiency of four of the selected masks ranged from 63% to 84%. The poor filtering efficiency may have arisen from larger and open pores present in the masks. Interestingly, we found that efficiency dropped by 20% after the 4th washing and drying cycle. We observed a change in pore size and shape and a decrease in microfibers within the pores after washing. Stretching of CM surface also altered the pore size and potentially decreased the filtering efficiency. As compared to CMs, the less frequently used surgical/paper masks had complicated networks of fibers and much smaller pores in multiple layers in comparison to CMs, and therefore had better filtering efficiency. This study showed that the filtering efficiency of cloth face masks were relatively lower, and washing and drying practices deteriorated the efficiency. We believe that the findings of this study will be very helpful for increasing public awareness and help governmental agencies to make proper guidelines and policies for use of face mask.

Keywords: Face mask; Filtering efficiency; Particulate matter; Pore morphology.

Grant support

This work was supported by startup funding to Basant Giri from—Kathmandu Institute of Applied Sciences (No.KIAS2016-1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.