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Not all face masks are created equal 

However, there’s still a DIY way to find out if your mask is effective, even if you don’t have access to a fancy lab: the simple candle test. Just light a candle, put on your mask, and then try to blow the candle out. If the candle remains lit, then your mask is probably good (though you still need to check the water-resistant qualities). If you can still blow out the candle, that means the mask isn’t helping anyone.

PM Scott Morrison dons an Australian flag mask.

PM Scott Morrison dons an Australian flag mask.Credit:Joe Armao

Performing that test is how we found out the Bonds Protective Face Masks treated with HEIQ Viroblock might not be effective. This is despite being registered by the TGA and advertised as able to “help keep you and those around you safe by slowing the spread of viruses”.

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In response to questions about the effectiveness of the mask, a Bonds spokesperson said: “The Bonds Protective Comfy Face Masks Treated With HEIQ Viroblock that you refer to is included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG 335413) as an airway protection face mask. As such, the Bonds Protective Comfy Face Mask has been subject to testing using verified test methodologies. It is not a surgical mask.”

When I asked the TGA what being registered as an airway protection face mask meant in relation to the Bonds masks, a spokesperson said “The Bonds Protective face mask is included in the post-market review of face masks; and is currently under review by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. The manufacturer claims this face mask is not specifically to protect from COVID-19 or of particulate filtration to a specific level, and the masks are not intended for use in high-risk medical settings. However, these products, similar to other reusable cloth masks, may be advisable where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.

People wear masks in the city.

People wear masks in the city.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“The TGA post-market review of face masks assesses the information held by the manufacturer to support the claims made for their product, and where appropriate will test in the TGA laboratories, the product to validate it meets any claims of particulate filtration or fluid resistance. The candle test is not one of the tests used by the TGA. Further information on the tests we are using can be found on the TGA website.

“Face masks are considered a ‘medical device’ if the manufacturer makes a claim the face mask can be used for therapeutic use (such as being labelled for surgical use or to reduce or prevent the transmission of disease or micro-organisms such as bacteria or viruses between people). These products must be included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and regulated by the TGA. Not all face masks, such as homemade face masks, are required to be included on the ARTG, as they do not meet the definition of a medical device.”

Ideally, after this review we might get clearer labelling of which masks are and aren’t appropriate for the pandemic. The TGA is having a pretty intense year, so hopefully the federal government is going to give it all the resources it needs to not only deal with the vaccine stuff, but also finish this review and make whatever other changes are necessary.

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Maybe the ACCC could get in on the clear labelling fun. It’s in everyone’s best interests to make sure we’re able to make informed decisions and help prevent the next inevitable flare up from putting us back in lockdown.

Alice Clarke is an award-winning freelance journalist, producer and presenter.

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