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Protection and Features of Different Masks

Front picture displaying mask graphics
Graphic showing the various masks that will be discussed.

There are many kinds of masks people can buy to help protect themselves from viruses and bacteria. Masks made from various materials serve different roles. Each one has different levels of protection. Some masks are essential for healthcare workers treating infected patients. However, these masks may not be as necessary for people who just need one for daily operations. With the coronavirus still infecting hundreds of thousands of people, masks have become an everyday essential for people who still wish to go about in public spaces. This article will discuss various kinds of facial coverings which include medical, KN95, N95, and cloth masks. In addition to this, the article will go into depth on the levels of protection of certain masks and what that means for the wearer.

N95

Health care worker wearing an N95 mask under a face shield and other personal protective equipment.

The N95 Mask is the American standard for masks like the KN95 is for China’s standard. The N means “non-oil”. That means that the mask can be used in any work environment where there are no oil particulates present. The “95” in the name represents the mask’s ability to remove 95% of 0.3-micron particles. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) which is also a part of the CDC, must test all N95 Masks to be approved before distribution. The fabric that makes up a majority of the mask is electrostatic non-woven polypropylene fiber. Head straps attach to the user to ensure a snug fit.

N95 Masks are actually not classified as masks at all. They are classified as respirators. Respirators have to fit tightly to the user’s face. A general mask will be more loose-fitting and tend to use the more common ear loop vs. a head strap.  People with facial hair will run into issues wearing the N95 Mask. Facial hair typically gets in the way of the mask and will prevent it from achieving a tight fit. The CDC has also listed other persons who should not wear these respirators without consulting a doctor first. 

Can Anyone Wear N95 Respirators?

The CDC suggests that people with chronic respiratory and cardiac issues, as well as other medical conditions, check with their healthcare provider before using these masks. This is due to it being somewhat difficult to breathe while wearing the respirator. To address this, some of these respirators come with an optional valve. The valve reduces the breathing resistance allowing people to exhale easier. The air exhaled from the mask, however, would be unfiltered. The CDC does not recommend the respirator with a valve to be used. Children are also among the group of people which the CDC outlines that should not wear these respirators. 

While these respirators are great for combating viruses, the CDC states they should not be for public use. N95 respirators should be saved for healthcare workers. These masks are single-use and disposable. Users typically dispose of these masks after one use or after coming into contact with a possible carrier of COVID-19.

KN95

Close up of woman wearing KN95 Respirator, covering up her mouth and nose for maximum protection.

The CDC announced earlier this year that the KN95 Mask is now a suitable alternative to the N95 mask in certain medical settings. The reason KN95 masks got CDC approval is because of the shortage of other mask alternatives due to the pandemic. Many people, however, confuse the KN95 Mask and N95 Mask. The KN95 Mask is the Chinese standard for masks while the N95 is the United States’ standard for masks. 

Fit testing is mandatory for KN95 Masks before distribution. In this test, the mask undergoes an analysis of how well it fits an actual human face. In addition to how well it fits the face, the mask will be tested on how well it can filter air once on the face. While this testing is not a requirement for other standards, China has adopted it into their mask standard. The KN95 Mask is also able to filter out 95% of 0.3-micron particles. These masks also come with ear loops to attach to the user’s head vs. the head straps of the N95. With multiple versions of these masks being made, it is important to know that your mask is not a knockoff brand that will not protect you. There are a couple of ways to test your KN95 Mask to ensure it meets its standards. 

How Can I Test The Protection of My KN95?

The user can test the airflow of the mask quite easily. They should be able to hold a lighter about 6 inches away from the mask while wearing it. Then, be able to blow as hard as he/she can without the flame going out. If the flame does blow out, your mask does not meet its safety standards. Another test that can be performed is testing the fluid resistance of the mask. By pouring water into the mask, the water should remain inside without any seeping out. KN95 Masks have a waterproof layer that prevents the passage of fluids. If water starts dripping from the mask, then your mask does not meet KN95 standards. This may mean your mask may be a cheaper replica.

Like the N95 Mask, the KN95 Mask is classified as a respirator. These respiratory masks fit a little looser than the N95 Masks. This ear loops result in a looser fit vs. the N95’s head straps. Another minor difference is that KN95 Masks tend to be cheaper than N95’s. 

Medical Masks

Medical masks being held up by someone wearing nitrile gloves.

People in the medical field wear medical masks because of their versatility and comfortable fit. They come loose-fitting and are disposable. Medical masks filter out large particles from the air and cover both mouth and nose.

Manufacturers use non-woven fabrics, usually polypropylene, to make medical masks. Other materials used to make these masks include polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester. Medical masks also have various levels of protection depending on which one the user buys. 

How Are Medical Masks Evaluated?

Medical masks come with either ASTM Level 1, 2, or 3 protection. The ASTM is the American Society for Testing and Materials. This organization provides a forum where international consensus standards of different materials and products can be developed and published. Medical masks are among the thousands of items that ASTM has created standards for. 5 metrics make up the safety standards for ASTM. The 5 metrics are fluid resistance, breathability, bacterial filtration (BFE), particulate filtration (PFE), and flammability. Many people, however, do not know the differences between ASTM Level 1,2, or 3 protection. The least protective level is Level 1.

Procedures that have a low risk of fluid exposure generally use ASTM Level 1 medical masks. These masks also come with ear loops. Next, we will go into detail about ASTM Level 2 Medical Masks.

The ASTM Level 2 medical masks cover all the same requirements of Level 1 medical masks. Situations, where low-moderate levels of fluids may be produced are when health care workers use this mask. Now we will go into depth about ASTM Level 3 Medical Masks. 

Manufacturers make medical masks that are classified as ASTM Level 3, able to withstand moderate-heavy amounts of fluids, aerosols, and sprays. These masks are among the most requested due to their high protective properties. According to The World Health Organization (WHO), people who work in medical settings where COVID-19 could be widely transmitted should always be wearing a medical mask, even if not working directly with a COVID-19 patient. With medical masks being in high demand, the most common option for people to wear are cloth masks.

Cloth Masks 

Cloth masks are among the most used masks by the public. This is in part due to people making their own masks when other alternatives were in shortage. With masks still being mandatory in most public spaces, even notable clothing brands have started to make their own cloth masks. When choosing a cloth mask to wear, there are certain things that should be inspected before use. 

The CDC recommends that the cloth mask has 2 layers of washable and breathable fabric. Most cloth masks are okay to wash but check the mask before washing. The mask should also cover both mouth and nose. Leaving either one of these uncovered defeats the whole purpose of the mask. When trying on the mask, make sure that it fits snugly against the face. The mask should not be too big or baggy which could let virus particles into the mask or escape it. This will allow for maximum protection.

If wearing a cloth mask, you should be able to wash it. The CDC recommends throwing in your mask with the regular laundry to make sure that it is clean whenever you wear it. When washing a cloth mask, be sure to take it off correctly before washing. Use normal laundry detergent when washing and use the warmest water setting possible that the cloth allows. When drying, use the hottest setting in the dryer and let the mask sit until completely dry.

Why Should I Wear A Cloth Mask?

Although these cloth masks cannot filter out smaller air particles like the N95 or KN95 Mask, they are still essential to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. A study conducted showed that air particles without any covering of the mouth could travel up to 12 feet and could have particles suspended in the air for several minutes after. With a face covering, the droplets only went out about a few inches. 

Cloth masks have the most variability in terms of physical appearance and customizability but do not offer the best protection for filtering out small virus particles. However, they are one of the more cost-effective alternatives and still help prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19

Conclusion: Which Mask is Right For You?

With so many face coverings to choose from, it is important to understand the functionality and protection that each one offers. People working in the medical field that come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients wear N95 or KN95 respirators since they are the safest masks to combat the Coronavirus. The N95 respirators usually take precedence over KN95 respirators if available. N95 and KN95 respirators are essential to healthcare workers, so do not buy and hoard these items for normal daily activities.

Medical masks should be worn by healthcare professionals who may not be working directly with COVID-19 but may encounter someone that has. These masks also come in various protection levels, so it is important that the user checks what level the mask is before using.

Everybody needs to wear a cloth mask, or another face covering when going about in public. This includes people not showing symptoms of COVID-19 since the virus can still spread through asymptomatic carriers. By wearing these masks, it will aid in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

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