In these uncertain times, people are gathering things they need in order to manage the current crisis. In most cases of emergency preparedness, you need things like food, water, and toilet paper. In cases with biological threats and viral infections, safety and precautionary equipment is also needed. Now, much of the population has N95 masks, surgical or medical masks, and cloth masks as part of their everyday apparel. But what is important to think about why you choose a protective face mask, and what the differences are between the options. Let’s explore some of the choices available.
What is an N95 Mask?
An N95 mask is a specially designed mask to be worn on the face, covering the nose and mouth to protect against potentially harmful airborne particles. It is sometimes referred to as a respirator. The designation ‘N95’ means that the mask will filter at least 95% of particles that are at least 0.3 microns in size. This is an effective protective face mask for a number of environments volatile. These are typically available at most hardware stores and large retailers as a daily use protective face mask choice.
What about a Surgical or Medical Masks?
While a surgical mask looks very similar to an N95 mask, it does not provide the same level of protection. Do not get a surgical mask thinking you are fully protected from harmful environments as it does not filter out as many potentially harmful particulates. Surgical masks are usually worn by doctors and surgeons to protect their patients. N95 masks work the opposite way by keeping potential surrounding bacteria and other harmful elements away from one’s respiratory system.
Another type of mask is the surgical N95 mask. These do work both ways by protecting the user against spreading his or her own germs as well as preventing them from breathing in outside germs. Surgical N95 masks get the seal of approval from both NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and the FDA. These are the pinnacle of protective face masks but are typically still disposable and limited use. Due to the dual protective functions, it is currently recommended that the general population leaves these for medical frontline workers so that they can keep themselves safe and minimize transfer potential to patients under their care.
What about Dust Masks and other Cloth Masks?
Dust masks are also popular and found in most hardware stores. They are often worn by construction workers and other professionals in their daily line of work. While they protect the wearer from the outside elements, they are not NIOSH approved and do not protect against harmful vapors and gases. Another popular option is cloth masks. As you probably know, these can be very fancy or as simple as being made from an old t-shirt. Cloth is only marginally beneficial in protecting you from small (< 2.5 microns) particles. Particles of that size or smaller are known to penetrate the lungs more deeply than larger particles and expectorants. While these are not as effective at providing protection from viruses, they are better than no protective face mask or covering.
Best Protective Face Masks
Now that we understand some of the differences between rated protective face masks, medical/surgical, and cloth masks, let’s look at the importance of face mask ratings and certifications.
The best protective face masks are rated appropriately to guarantee the level of protection you will receive. If you are working in a professional capacity, do not buy any mask that has not been approved by NIOSH or does not meet the European Standards for air filtration. N95 is just one of the several ratings you can find on NIOSH-approved masks but is the most common. The NIOSH ratings are explained as follows:
Masks Not Resistant to Oil:
- N95 – Filters at least 95% of airborne particles
- N99 – Filters at least 99% of airborne particles
- N100 – Filters at least 99.7% of airborne particles
Masks Partially Resistant to Oil:
- R95 – Filters at least 95% of airborne particles
Masks Very Resistant to Oil:
- P95 – Will filter at least 95% of airborne particles
- P99 – Another type of N99 that will filter at least 99% of particles but is resistant to oil
- P100 – Another type of N100 that will filter at least 99.7% of particles but is resistant to oil
As previously mentioned, face masks can also be at European Standard EN-149 and are slightly different to NIOSH ratings. The three main levels of EN-149 are:
- P1 EN-149 – Will filter out at least 80% of particles.
- P2 EN-149 – Will filter out at least 94% of particles.
- P3 EN-149 – Filters 99.5% of particles.
You will be able to find these ratings right on the front of the mask towards the bottom of the model if it is NIOSH approved. It will also have the company, model, and lot numbers evident.
Does the Rating Make Any Difference for a Protective Face Mask?
It is not worth buying a cheap mask under any circumstance. Inexpensive masks will not give you a good level of protection. Studies have shown this to be true, experts have tested NIOSH approved masks against cheap surgical ones. The results are astounding, with a significant difference in the level of protection. NIOSH and CDC came to the following conclusions:
It is evident that some unregulated masks will do hardly anything to filter out harmful particulates, while others can offer a lot regarding protection. However, this level of security is utterly uncertain without a NIOSH or European Standard Rating. Therefore, it is always recommended that you guarantee your safety with a quality protective face mask.
How Efficient are N95 Masks?
With many face masks, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to levels of protection, so the answer here differs depending on the situation. As mentioned above, N95 masks offer at least 95% protection against particles that are 0.3 microns in size or larger. To help put this into perspective: 1-inch = 25,400 microns
N95 face masks have been shown to help reduce the spread of viruses despite the size of the particle often being less than 0.3 microns. If you are around someone who is suffering from an infection, this type of mask can help. Understand though, if there is a viral outbreak going on, you will need to do more than simply rely on the face mask.
Will N95 Masks Help Against Chemicals?
There are a lot of chemicals that the standard N95 mask would not be able to help with, although using one is better than no protection at all. For protection against particulates, chemical and gas odor, go with a good quality protective face mask made for the specific chemical you need to protect against.
A Mask is Only as Effective as the Fit!
If a mask doesn’t fit correctly, then you might as well not be wearing one at all. N95 masks are only effective only when they are correctly fitted around the nose, mouth and chin.
N95 masks are ideal for adults. Children will need specially sized masks. Typical N95 masks are also not recommended for those with facial hair since it can prevent a proper seal from forming, allowing for particles to get in. A good protective face mask will often have one or two elastic straps that go around the back of the head. They can usually be tightened for a better fit. If you find them too loose, you will need a try different makes or a find a way to adjust the straps to get a good seal.
There are a few checks you can do to ensure a good fit, and you will want to do these before an emergency should occur.
- Put both hands over the mask and take a big breath in. The mask should collapse towards the face without any air leaking out.
- Breathe out and try to feel for any air escaping. If your mask has an exhalation valve, you will need to cover this first.
- If you can feel air leaking, this may not be the right size/model for you.
- Do not forget to get a protective face mask with an adjustable nose forming piece, which is a very common feature to find in a quality face mask because this can be bent to provide the perfect fit over the nose and cheeks.
Are Face Masks Worth It?
You can never be too prepared in today’s world. Everyone should have one in your emergency bag at home, in your car, and right now in your jacket pocket. They are lightweight, inexpensive, and invaluable when you do not know if someone is asymptomatic at the store, doctor’s office, or even at work.
When choosing your protective face mask, go for one that is made with high-quality materials. One of the great options available is a reusable N95 mask, as these can be used more than once. This type is easy to clean and care for. A reusable mask with replaceable filters is ideal for an everyday user. In the long run it will be less expensive and less impactful on the environment if you use a reusable mask that can be cleaned and sanitized.