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A surgical mask, also known as a face mask, is intended to be worn by health professionals during healthcare procedures. It is designed to prevent infections in patients and treating personnel by catching bacteria shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer’s mouth and nose. They are not designed to protect the wearer from breathing in airborne bacteria or viruses whose particles are smaller. With respect to some infections like influenza, they appear as effective as respirators, such as N95 or FFP masks; though the latter provides better protection in laboratory experiments due to their material, shape, and tight seal.
Surgical masks vary by quality and levels of protection. Despite their name, not all surgical masks are appropriate to be used during surgery. Surgical masks may be labeled as surgical, isolation, dental, or medical procedure masks. Chinese health officials distinguish between medical (non-surgical) and surgical masks.
Surgical masks are made of a nonwoven fabric created using a melt blowing process. They came into use in the 1960s and largely replaced cloth facemasks in developed countries. The use of surgical masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a subject of debate, as shortages of surgical masks are a central issue. Surgical masks are popularly worn by the general public all year round in East Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases to others, and to prevent the breathing in of airborne dust particles created by air pollution. Additionally, surgical masks have become a fashion statement, particularly in contemporary East Asian culture bolstered by its popularity in Japanese and Korean pop culture which have a big impact on East Asian youth culture.