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Dermatology resident develops face masks from recycled medical supplies

Aditit Sharma headshot
DermWorld Weekly talks with Aditi Sharma, MD, a third-year resident in the department of dermatology at the University of California, Irvine, about how she produced a new type of protective face mask made from recycled sterilization wraps. She is also the first dermatology resident to be the recipient of the 2020 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Organization of Resident Representatives (ORR) Community Service Recognition Award, which recognizes those who have made contributions above and beyond the rigors of residency training to improve the local communities surrounding their training institution.

DermWorld Weekly: How did you come up with the idea to use sterilization wraps to create face masks?

Dr. Sharma: The University of Florida anesthesiology team had initially hypothesized that the wrap we use for sterilizing surgical equipment has a high particle filtration efficiency as reported by the manufacturer, and therefore, could have the potential to be used in the setting of mask shortages. However, at that time, there was no data to corroborate this hypothesis. This inspired me to start researching the material as a viable alternative. What intrigued me most was that the wraps are made from polypropylene, which is the same material used to make N95s and surgical masks. Even more interesting is that in exploring how the material is prepared: The polypropylene material is melted down and blown out into a thin fibrous meshwork, creating a mechanical filtration. It is then treated with an electrostatic charge, which results in an electric filtration. This combined processing is what makes the surgical sterilization wrap and the N95 good for filtration.

Our team at the University of California, Irvine, sent several samples of surgical sterilization wrap, along with cloth masks, surgical masks, and N95s for comparative testing to be done by Greg Rutledge, PhD, professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The results showed that two layers of the Halyard H600 sterilization wrap material filtered up to 86.5% of the particles, while two layers of the Gemini Medline sterilization wrap material filtered up to 73.5%. While not quite as efficient as the N95 masks, which have a filtration efficiency of at least 95%, they were far superior to the four-layered cloth masks that we tested, which had a filtration efficiency of 26.5%.

With this data, we thought it would be wonderful to repurpose material, that was being otherwise discarded, into something that would not only promote the health of our community, but also the health of our planet.

DermWorld Weekly: Is this your first venture into using recycled medical materials to create something or solve a problem?

Dr. Sharma: This is the first time I have worked to implement an innovative solution using recycled medical materials. However, my passion has always been the intersection of innovation, public health, and medicine. I had previously been working on other innovative solutions for medical problems, including a cordless cautery device for surgical procedures with my team from the Advancing Innovation in Dermatology Fellowship and the Virtual Magic Wand Initiative, as well as a Code Blue Mobile app, which helps physicians and nurses document and run Code Blues more efficiently and accurately in the hospital.

DermWorld Weekly: How long did the process take you from conception through production of the masks?

Dr. Sharma: From the time we sent the materials to MIT for testing, to completion of the initial 2,000 masks we made with our volunteer seamstresses from the community, it took about six weeks. With the help of UC Irvine Health, we have now been able to streamline the process and scale production to distribute nearly 10,000 masks for all hospital employees.

DermWorld Weekly: How did you go about testing your hypothesis about whether the sterilized wrap material had adequate filtration to be used as a face mask?

Dr. Sharma: Our team created a hospital-wide protocol to collect two otherwise discarded surgical sterilization materials and built three different mask prototypes, which were then subjected to qualitative and quantitative fit testing. These materials, along with cloth masks, surgical masks, and N95 respirators were tested for filtration efficiency in an independent laboratory under Dr. Rutledge at MIT under conditions that were intended to approximate the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standard. Materials were additionally imaged by scanning electron microscopy (SEM) at the Center for Bits and Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

DermWorld Weekly: Are these one-time use masks or are they reusable?

Dr. Sharma: In addition to being recycled material, these are reusable, sterilizable masks. Given that they are sterilization wrap materials, they can tolerate sterilization by hydrogen peroxide vapor.

DermWorld Weekly: How many face masks have been produced and where will they be distributed?

Dr. Sharma: With the help of UC Irvine Health, we have now been able to streamline the process and scale production to distribute nearly 10,000 masks to all hospital employees. We are fortunate that UC Irvine does not have a shortage of face masks. However, this pandemic has reinforced the need for community collaboration for innovative solutions to prevent future shortages of necessary medical equipment. As a result, our hospital has been very supportive of our recycling initiative because relying on disposable resources is not sustainable, especially during a crisis.

DermWorld Weekly: Will this become a broader initiative? Will you partner with other organizations or institutions?

Dr. Sharma: Despite the physical distancing of COVID-19, the power of communities to bring together their talents and skills demonstrates that the best innovation is a result of collaboration. We are currently working with UCLA and Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) to help recycle materials and make face masks in addition to other useful medical equipment. We have also been in discussion with several other hospitals and institutions across the country who are also interested in implementing similar recycling initiatives. Furthermore, we hope to eventually make these face masks available to the community.

This mask initiative promotes a culture of sustainability within the medical field while simultaneously increasing community safety and protecting our planet.

DermWorld Weekly: Have you started thinking about what comes next after this project?

Dr. Sharma: It is my great hope that this recycling initiative is just the beginning of a bigger movement toward sustainability within the medical field. This project has highlighted the necessity of the medical field to start thinking about how we can recycle and repurpose many of the materials that we are using in the hospital to reduce the waste we are producing. The biggest lesson I have learned from the pandemic is how to get creative even when resources are scarce, and this is a skill I hope to continue to implement throughout my career.

Read Forming ranks in the September issue of DermWorld for more stories from dermatologists on the front lines of COVID-19.