Can we be more careful in labeling clothing as ‘PPE’?

Lately, I’ve seen so much fashion forward “PPEs” entering the market. From dresses to kimono-inspired ones, we’re seeing local designers exert effort in innovating things. But how many are actually qualified to be classified as personal protective equipment (PPE)?

According to the World Health Organization, “PPE” consists of garments that protect health care workers or other people from infection. They say that in a normal situation you usually use gloves, mask and a gown. However in the event of an outbreak of an airborne disease (like COVID-19), you’re required to gear up in gloves, face protection (mask, goggles and face shield), coverall, head cover and rubber boots.

What’s wrong with these “PPEs”?

While I’m not an expert on the subject, I feel like most of the heavily-marketed designer “PPEs” we see aren’t going to fully protect our healthcare workers from the virus. Most of the ones I’ve seen don’t even bear a disclaimer on their product description that it’s not meant for medical use. One of the most doubtful one I’ve seen was a hooded “PPE” which is said to protect people from the weather. Uh, isn’t that a raincoat? (Please do note that waterproof materials alone do not pass the international standard for PPEs.)

I don’t blame these designers though. I’ve seen a lot of medical professionals looking for fashionable alternatives because they’re tired of “looking unglam” while on the job. And when they do find one, some of them even post their photos with captions saying how they should at least look good while saving the world.

On a more personal note, I’ve had an argument with a close acquaintance from the health care sector who said it was okay since the shop says it’s a “PPE.” As someone who cares for her, it’s anxiety-inducing that she’s at a bigger risk compared to those who do wear equipment that passes the international standard.

What is the standard?

There are different standards when it comes to medical safety equipment and PPEs that are used to attend to possible and confirmed COVID-19 patients, both internationally and locally.

The World Health Organization requires medical professionals to make use of disposable medical gowns (which the reusable ones we see mass produced in the country fails to follow). While the scrubs they’ll be wearing below may be reusable, medical gowns are required to be “fluid resistant, single-use, length mid-calf to cover the top of the boots, be of light colours preferable to better detect possible contamination and have thumb/finger loops or elastic cuff to anchor sleeves in place.”

According to Inquirer.net, there’s a lot of design details that one mustn’t overlook like the number of seams and holes. These should be kept at a minimum to ensure no infectious bodily fluids may penetrate it. Aside from that, medical-grade suits are required to be produced in a sterile environment and must acquire certain certifications.

In addition, here in the Philippines, the Department of Health issued a circular last April requiring “PPE” manufacturers to apply for a License to Operate. For it to be granted, it must pass numerous tests including one from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA administrative order no. 2020-0017, manufacturers should have appropriate storage conditions to maintain the safety and quality of products. They’re also required to supply the FDA with a risk management plan and site master file.

In an interview with Inquirer.net, ENT specialist Dr. Geraldine Luna warns that design elements such as hoods, pockets, straps and other embellishments can create more areas of contamination. “Wearing one might also give a false sense of security, which may lead to lowering of guard and increasing the risk of transmission of pathogens,” Dr. Zamora agrees.

My thoughts on the subject

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate the idea of these designers creating better clothing options for us during the new normal. What I’m worried about is healthcare workers not knowing which clothing is the best to use in their practice. Not just healthcare workers, even other professionals that often come in close contact with their clients like nail technicians, dermatologists and the like.

As the worries that comes with leaving our homes (especially for work) rises, let’s not give these healthcare workers and other contact-requiring professionals more to worry about. Let’s be more careful with labeling these clothing as “PPEs,” especially if they don’t fully pass the government’s standards.

 

Art by Tricia Guevara

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