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Not all PPE materials are created equal and composition will change how you use this equipment in your workplace.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) comes in a wide variety of options depending on what you need protection from. For physicians, this most commonly refers to masks, eye protection, gloves, and clothing protection.
Not all PPE materials are created equal, however, and the composition will change how you use the equipment to protect your workplace. From disposables meant to reduce the spread of germs, to reusable equipment that can be easily washed and sanitized, healthcare professionals use a huge variety of PPE every day.
Let’s start with the biggest PPE topic of discussion during COVD-19: masks. Cloth masks made of cotton or other fabric are the easiest to make and use; however, their loosely-woven material and lack of filters means they are not suitable for physicians providing medical care. They can be worn around non-patient settings to help prevent the wearer from spreading the virus, but that’s all.
Surgical or procedural masks are made of plastic fibers like polypropylene. They are loose-fitting and best for physicians treating non-COVID patients. These types of masks help prevent the wearer from spreading large droplets of saliva when they talk or cough, but they don’t protect the wearer from others’ contaminants.
Respiratory masks, like N-95s or FFP2s, are made from a polyester shell and contain a polypropylene filter within that shell. This combination of materials, paired with the tight seal around your mouth and nose, means that these high-grade masks protect both you and others from spreading germs. They’re best for those who are working directly with infected patients.
Eye protection is fairly straightforward when it comes to materials. Most are made of plastic frames with glass or plastic lenses and are designed to function similarly to surgical masks, in that they protect the wearer from others’ contaminants. They can also serve as a reminder not to touch your face or eye area.
Another option is a large face shield, usually made of plastic, that doubles as eye and mouth protection. These shields are worn on your head and come down to act as a barrier between your entire face and potentially infected individuals. Plastic is preferable, as it is easy to clean and less breakable than glass. Pair these with masks for even better protection.
Physicians are very familiar with latex gloves. These gloves are made from rubber latex, a material useful in barrier protection. They are also disposable, which is essential for preventing the spread of infection.
For those with latex allergies, nitrile gloves work well. Nitrile is a hypoallergenic, synthetic compound. These gloves also provide barrier protection and are disposable, exactly like latex. However, nitrile gloves are slightly more resistant to puncture and tearing, so they make an excellent choice for physicians, as they regularly use needles, scalpels, and other sharp instruments.
Clothing protection offers the widest variety in terms of the materials with which it is made. The traditional white lab coat is the most basic and is usually made of cotton, linen, or a polyester blend. There is some debate as to the cleanliness of these lab coats and, thus, their continued usage, but they do help protect physicians’ clothes and exposed skin from germs.
Surgical gowns are also effective PPE. These come in a wide variety of ratings depending on the severity of infection or other contaminants. Non-surgical, disposable gowns are usually made from woven polyester. These are useful for low-risk situations where a reusable option is preferable.
Other surgical gowns are made from a fabric called Spunbond Meltblown Spunbond, or SMS. It’s a lightweight, non-woven fabric made from layers of polypropylene processed in different ways. This material is strong and very effective at filtering out contaminants.
When there is a higher risk of infection, physicians will tape closed the entry points of their gowns, like the areas around the wrists. For the highest risk of contamination, entire suits called coveralls are used. These are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE). HDPE is very effective at keeping the wearer safe from contamination.
Continuing with the higher-risk scenarios, physicians often wear head coverings. These are made from similar materials, like polypropylene blends, to the other PPE equipment we’ve discussed, and come in the form of caps and hoods. Depending on the severity of infection, these coverings can extend down the neck area and connect to the main body PPE.
Similar to head coverings, if shoe coverings are required, they are typically made from similar polypropylene materials. They are almost always disposable and help prevent grime and infections from contaminating a physicians’ shoes for personal protection. They are also useful in helping prevent infections from outside getting introduced to sterile environments.
Personal protective equipment is vital in preventing the spread of infections and diseases. Most PPE comes in some form of woven plastic material, but there are variations like cotton or another porous fabric. It’s essential to know the level of protection you need and choose the material that will meet that level.
Aaron Smith is an LA-based content strategist and consultant in support of STEM firms and medical practices. He covers industry developments and helps healthcare professionals connect with patients. In his free time, Aaron enjoys swimming, swing dancing, and sci-fi novels.