ASTM International recently approved a new performance standard that will tell consumers just how much protection their cloth face masks offer. Some face coverings like N-95 respirators and surgical masks must meet certain filtration requirements enforced by government agencies like the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But, until recently, other masks like reusable gaiters and cloth face coverings had no performance standards whatsoever, making it impossible for consumers to judge how protective their masks were or to compare one mask to another.
Last month, ASTM International approved the new voluntary standard ASTM F3502-21 (F3502) for Barrier Face Coverings. It applies to cloth face masks and gaiters intended for everyday use, not to masks used in a medical setting or for worker protection, which are already regulated. The goal is to provide a baseline performance standard, but masks that do not make the cut can still be sold.
Like most product performance standards, F3502 contains design, construction, and labeling requirements. It offers two classification levels based on the mask’s filtration efficiency and breathability. For particulate filtration efficiency, masks can meet the minimum requirements by filtering 20% or more of particles during testing, or the higher level 2 requirements by filtering 50% or more. Two levels are also available based on the masks’ airflow resistance, with a more breathable mask achieving a higher result. Manufacturers must verify their results at a certified test laboratory, and can then claim that their mask “Meets ASTM F3502” requirements and describe the mask’s performance levels.
F3502 presents an interesting opportunity for mask manufacturers, which can now sell a high-quality face covering without necessarily meeting the high standards for medical-grade or N-95 masks. Because this is not a federal standard, the masks are not subject to federal agency approval such as FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization process for various medical face masks. Likewise, barrier face coverings do not qualify as medical countermeasures, so manufacturers are not eligible for the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act’s liability protections.
Some masks have already met the F3502 standard and are available for purchase. It remains to be seen how heavily consumers will support the new standard by purchasing certified masks. In a market with no easy way for buyers to know how much protection their masks offer, this new standard may help consumers make more informed choices and encourage manufacturers to make better masks.