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The First National Standards for Face Masks Are Here

Face masks.

Kseniya Ovchinnikova / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A major standards organization has issued guidelines for consumer face masks.
  • ASTM International’s standards divide face coverings into two groups based on breathability and fit.
  • Companies are not required to comply with the standards at this time.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first recommended the use of face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, people scrambled to stock up on whatever they could get their hands on. But nearly a year later, the public safety organization ASTM International has released the first national standards for face coverings.

The standards, which were released last week, break down specifics on the minimum requirements for mask fit, design, performance, care, and testing. They also highlight the need for user instructions, labeling, and tags.

These are the first face mask standards ASTM International has created. The organization is responsible for standards for a wide range of products, including cribs and sports equipment.

Experts applaud the move. “It is good to have recommendations that are standardized so people can refer to them,” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Verywell. “Ambiguity causes confusion.”

Stacey Rose, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, agrees, telling Verywell that it’s “helpful” for the face mask industry to have “a more standardized approach to guide the development of effective face masks.”

Labeling will also allow consumers to easily see if a mask they’re considering buying meets ASTM International standards.

What This Means For You

ASTM’s new mask standards can help ensure you know what you’re getting when you buy a mask. But, for now, they’re voluntary. Time will tell if companies decide to adopt them.

The Face Mask Standards

In order to certify that their face covering meets the ASTM International standards, companies will need to test their masks in accredited labs. If their product meets the standards, they’ll be granted a specific label.

The ASTM International labeling requirements focus on two main things: a face coverings’ breathability and its filtration. The ASTM International standards test to see whether a mask can filter out particles 0.3 microns, a size at which aerosols that contain viruses and bacteria are likely to be.

The guidelines specifically break masks into different levels based on filtration:

  • Level one: This requires that the face-covering filters out at least 20% of particles. That would make the mask easy to breathe in, but will not provide as much protection for the wearer as masks in higher levels.
  • Level two: This certification is given to masks that filter out at least 50% of particles, but are likely less breathable than level one masks.

Do Companies Have to Comply?

Rose points out that companies are currently not required to adopt the standards. “Compliance with these standards is voluntary,” she says. “In other words, private companies producing face masks would not be obligated to comply, unless another regulatory agency such as the Food and Drug Administration mandates adherence to such standards.”

More guidance on mask standards may be coming, though. In an executive order issued in late January, President Joe Biden requested that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a regulatory agency that inspects and oversees workplace safety, establish guidance for workers on mask safety. Biden specifically requested that OSHA “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary.” If OSHA determines that they are needed, the executive order asks that they be issued by March 15, 2021.

Rose notes that the ATSM standards also echo CDC guidance on masks, which recommends that masks be made of multiple layers of fabric and fit securely on the face.

While companies don’t need to adopt the standards, Rose says they can be helpful for consumers—and may even help drive sales, which could encourage other makers to comply. Unfortunately, that can take time.

“For now, I would recommend that consumers continue to use CDC guidance in choosing masks, especially since the new ASTM standards remain voluntary at this time,” Rose says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  1. ASTM International. Standard specification for barrier face coverings. Updated February 16, 2021.

  2. The White House. Executive order on protecting worker health and safety. Updated January 21, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improve how your mask protects you. Updated February 13, 2021.