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FAQ – What is the difference between disposable face masks and N95-grade respirators?

As simple as they look, masks actually come in a myriad of types and classifications, depending on the materials and techniques used in production. Amidst the PPE shortage that the world is confronting, it is critical to understand what distinguishes different categories of masks so that we can save the appropriate stockpiles for our healthcare workers on the front lines.

To start, disposable face masks are typically comprised of one layer of filter material sandwiched between two layers of non-woven fabric. These face masks provide protective covering for the user’s mouth and nose. Depending on the quality of the filter material deployed inside the mask, these face masks may or may not provide protection against liquids or large droplets (be it bodily fluids, hazardous liquid chemicals, etc). Typically, face masks that serve as barriers against liquids and have received FDA validations attesting to this extent are also called “surgical masks.” As the name suggests, surgical masks are considered medical devices and are typically worn in healthcare settings where there’s a higher risk of exposure to bodily fluids. Important to note, while many face masks are constructed from medical-grade polypropylene and do provide protection against liquid droplets, they will not be labeled as a “surgical mask” without a FDA approval. These masks are not considered a medical device and will be available for general use. To determine whether your face mask has “surgical-mask like” properties, check out our soon-to-come post on how to interpret data and certification labels on mask packaging. Finally, while many disposable face masks offer high bacterial and particulate filtration rates and can make a difference in slowing the spread, higher grades of PPE are recommended if you expect to be in close contact with a COVID-19 carrier, which brings us to N-95s.

A standard disposable face mask made with non-woven fabric

N-95 respirators will be able to filter out 95% of particles equal to or larger than 0.3 microns in diameter. If you’re curious, COVID-19 viral particles are typically 0.06-0.15 microns in diameter. To achieve this filtration efficacy, N-95 respirators are typically made out of four or more layers melt-blown fabric, with some layers given an electrostatic charge during the production process. This electrostatic charge adds a level of filtration beyond what the fabric can achieve by itself. Important to note, the “N-95” label is derived from a US Government Standard developed by NIOSH. N-95 equivalent products from other jurisdictions exist, such as the FFP2 respirator from the EU or the KN95 respirator from China. So long as the product’s certifications, performance specifications, and labeling are authentic and accurate, a FFP2 or KN95 respirator will offer similar levels of protection as a N-95 respirator.

KN95 masks manufactured for general use

Imaginably, due to the global pandemic, the demand of both types of masks has surged exponentially. Per recommendations from the CDC, masks are an effective tool against viral spread. This is particularly true if you live or work in a place with high population density. Feel free to contact us or submit a FAQ if you would like to learn more about where to get masks and the science behind them!

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