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New Reusable, Silicone Rubber Face Mask Stops Coronavirus Particles as Effectively as N95 Masks

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 28 Jul 2020
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Image: New Reusable, Silicone Rubber Face Mask Stops Coronavirus Particles as Effectively as N95 Masks (Photo courtesy of MIT and Brigham and Women`s Hospital researchers)
Image: New Reusable, Silicone Rubber Face Mask Stops Coronavirus Particles as Effectively as N95 Masks (Photo courtesy of MIT and Brigham and Women`s Hospital researchers)
A new face mask made of durable silicone rubber that can be easily sterilized and used many times is capable of stopping stop viral particles as effectively as N95 masks, and could play an important role in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Cambridge, MA, USA) in collaboration with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston, MA, USA) have designed the new silicone rubber mask that can be manufactured using injection molding, which is widely used in factories around the world. The mask also includes an N95 filter, but it requires much less N95 material than a traditional N95 mask.

The N95 masks that health care workers wear to protect against exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses are made from polypropylene fibers that are specially designed to filter out tiny viral particles. Ideally, a health care worker would switch to a new mask each time they see a different patient, but shortages of these masks have forced doctors and nurses to wear them for longer than they are meant to be worn. In recent months, many hospitals have begun sterilizing N95 masks with hydrogen peroxide vapor, which can be used up to 20 times on a single mask. However, this process requires specialized equipment that is not available everywhere, and even with this process, one mask can be worn for only a single day.

The MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital team set out to design a mask that could be safely sterilized and reused many times. They decided on silicone rubber-the material that goes into silicone baking sheets, among other products-because it is so durable. Liquid silicone rubber can be easily molded into any shape using injection molding, a highly automated process that generates products rapidly. The masks are based on the shape of the 3M 1860 style of N95 masks. Most of the mask is made of silicone rubber, and there is also space for one or two N95 filters. Those filters are designed to be replaced after every use, while the rest of the mask can be sterilized and reused.

The researchers tested several different sterilization methods on the silicone masks, including running them through an autoclave (steam sterilizer), putting them in an oven, and soaking them in bleach and in isopropyl alcohol. They found that after sterilization, the silicone material was undamaged. To test the comfort and fit of the masks, the researchers recruited about 20 health care workers from the emergency department and an oncology clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They had each of the subjects perform the standard fit test that is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for N95 masks. During this test, the subject puts the mask on and then performs a series of movements to see if the mask stays in place. A nebulized sugar solution is sprayed in the room, and if the subject can taste or smell it, it means the mask is not properly fitted. All 20 subjects passed the fit test, and they reported that they were able to successfully insert and remove the N95 filter. When asked their preference between the new mask, a typical N95 mask, and a standard surgical mask, most either said they had no preference or preferred the new silicone mask. They also gave the new mask high ratings for fit and breathability.

Based on feedback from health care workers and others who still urgently need N95 masks, the researchers are now working on a second version of the mask and establishing a company to support scaled-up production and seek approval from the FDA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The researchers hope to make the new mask more comfortable and durable, and also plan to do additional lab tests for measuring its ability to filter viral particles.

“One of the key things we recognized early on was that in order to help meet the demand, we needed to really restrict ourselves to methods that could scale,” said Giovanni Traverso, an MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We also wanted to maximize the reusability of the system, and we wanted systems that could be sterilized in many different ways.”

“We know that COVID-19 is really not going away until a vaccine is prevalent. I think there’s always going to be a need for masks, whether it be in the health care setting or in the general public,” said lead author of the study, James Byrne, who is a radiation oncologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and research affiliate at the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Related Links:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

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