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What’s the Right Mask for The Task?

Written by

Amanda Hill

Posted On

February 24, 2020

With all this talk of Coronavirus there is a mask buying frenzy happening.  Supply companies are limiting the number of masks you can buy to make sure there’s enough to go around for all of us.  That makes perfect sense, as we all need to ensure the entire team is wearing the proper PPE.  But are you even buying the right mask for the task?

A few years ago at my yearly infection control update, I was surprised to learn I was not wearing the recommended mask when using the ultrasonic scaler.  I promptly went into my office to let them know the Level 1 mask did not reach the standards set out by the CDC and we needed to change to Level 2.  Then just a year later, at my next infection control update, I learned the recommendation was actually a level 3 for procedures creating moderate to heavy amounts of aerosols–including tasks like ultrasonic scaling and the use of high-speed handpieces.  Many offices I encounter are still using level 1 masks exclusively.

So how do we know what mask is appropriate for what procedure?  Crosstex came up with a handy chart to help you understand the different ASTM levels of masks but it still doesn’t quite layout when to where what.  An article published in RDH magazine in November 2019 Leeann Keefer, MSM, RDH lays out the hard science of mask selection.  Keefer included tables from ASTM on the proper use of facemasks, including a particularly helpful one breaking mask usage down by tasks within the dental office. 

It is perfectly acceptable to have different levels of masks within your office for different tasks.  However, we need to make certain we understand the difference and choose appropriately.  Prior to my hygiene check I lay out a level 1 mask for my Doctor and when turning over my room I use a level 1 mask.  But for appointments where I’m using the ultrasonic scaler I am unquestionably wearing a level 3 mask.  While it may be a pain to purchase, store and track supply on different levels of masks this can not only save you money, it will help you during this mask shortage.

It is also key to remember proper mask usage. Read the instructions on the box and look at the pictures. Keep these common mistakes in mind:

  • Single use
    • Masks are one-time use only, meaning you cannot use the same mask from patient to patient, regardless of how short or long you’ve worn it
  • Duration
    • Masks should be changed hourly or if soiled or wet–whichever comes first.  
  • Proper Placement (walk around your office and you’re bound to see at least one of these mistakes)
    • We should not be walking around with our masks below our chin (I’m totally guilty of this), when we touch the outside of the mask to pull it down, the mask is no longer as effective and you are spreading around whatever landed on that mask.
    • The ear loops should be flat and not twisted.  When you twist them the mask no longer seals properly and it sits closer to your mouth so it will get wet faster.
    • The mask must cover your nose.  It will not protect you unless you properly fit it to your face.  If your glasses are fogging get some antifog or warm them up.
    • Don’t put your used mask in your pocket.  Consider that mask contaminated.  There are all kinds of aerosols that landed on that mask.

In the healthcare setting, it is key that we protect ourselves.  The number one reason dental professionals miss work is due to upper respiratory infections.  So when you are busy thinking about the added cost of level 3 masks, consider the cost of missing a day’s production or paying a temp service to fill in for your hygienist and that might just help you get compliant.

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Amanda Hill

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Amanda Hill, RDH, BS has been in the dental industry for over 30 years, she earned her B.S. in Dental Hygiene at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and has had the opportunity to experience dentistry around the world. Amanda has a love for learning and is obsessed with continuing education in all its many forms. Amanda practices part time clinically and is an industry educator for the nation’s largest dental job board, DentalPost.net. Amanda is a proud Navy spouse and mom of 3.

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