Expiratory aerosol particle escape from surgical masks due to imperfect sealing

Christopher D. Cappa, Sima Asadi, Santiago Barreda, Anthony S. Wexler, Nicole M. Bouvier, William D. Ristenpart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Wearing surgical masks or other similar face coverings can reduce the emission of expiratory particles produced via breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing. Although it is well established that some fraction of the expiratory airflow leaks around the edges of the mask, it is unclear how these leakage airflows affect the overall efficiency with which masks block emission of expiratory aerosol particles. Here, we show experimentally that the aerosol particle concentrations in the leakage airflows around a surgical mask are reduced compared to no mask wearing, with the magnitude of reduction dependent on the direction of escape (out the top, the sides, or the bottom). Because the actual leakage flowrate in each direction is difficult to measure, we use a Monte Carlo approach to estimate flow-corrected particle emission rates for particles having diameters in the range 0.5–20 μm. in all orientations. From these, we derive a flow-weighted overall number-based particle removal efficiency for the mask. The overall mask efficiency, accounting both for air that passes through the mask and for leakage flows, is reduced compared to the through-mask filtration efficiency, from 93 to 70% for talking, but from only 94–90% for coughing. These results demonstrate that leakage flows due to imperfect sealing do decrease mask efficiencies for reducing emission of expiratory particles, but even with such leakage surgical masks provide substantial control.

Original languageEnglish
Article number12110
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


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