During this year, the surge of COVID-19 and the pandemic has caused healthcare centers in the United States to suffer shortages of supplies they were previously never worried about. Surgical masks, gloves, and gowns, as well as more extreme protective supplies like KN95 masks, N95 respirators, and face shields, have been difficult to find for sale when anyone could buy them in bulk and wholesale before the pandemic.
The need for these supplies has brought to the forefront topics of discussion revolving around personal protective equipment (PPE), and N95 masks in particular have been the center of attention. These masks are a crucial item for healthcare providers to be safe while they work. With this attention, a lot of questions have come from the general public, who were never familiar with this type of face mask.
In this article we’ll talk about the sizing of these valuable masks, and whether or not some of them are too small for the face.
First, let’s understand what these masks can do
N95 masks are a type of respirator according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as NIOSH. This institution is a federal agency that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and as part of their goal to prevent work-related illnesses, they regulate respirators in the USA, considered to be the filtration standard.
Respirators are widely used in many different work fields where the workers are exposed to respiratory hazards, which are particles that can lead to serious health conditions when they’re inhaled. Some diseases caused by respiratory hazards can include lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even tuberculosis, among many other respiratory illnesses. Respirators prevent the inhalation of these particles by trapping them in their filter media.
The N95 respirators are currently considered to be the best disposable face masks for virus protection in the healthcare field, where workers are largely exposed to the virus more frequently and consistently. They have antiviral properties that can’t be obtained from reusable cloth masks, or the regular surgical masks healthcare providers usually wear, which is why they’re a crucial part of their PPE while they work during the pandemic.
The NIOSH classification takes into consideration two characteristics in their two-part naming system: the resistance to oil, and the filtration rate. The first one is indicated in the name with the letters N, R, or P, if the respirator is not resistant, somewhat resistant, or oil-proof, respectively. The second one is indicated with a number, either 95, 99, or 100, representing the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy.
Based on this classification, N95 masks can filter out 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air, since they’re not oil-resistant and have a filtration efficacy of 95%. This makes them a good option to filter out smoke, dust, pollen, as well as the flu virus, the coronavirus, and other bioaerosols. For this reason, they can have multiple uses in different work fields.
All respirators manufactured following this classification must be tested by NIOSH, and they approve whether or not they meet their requirements. The approval seal is necessary to make sure the respirator will perform efficiently.
N95 masks can come in many different sizes
According to the CDC’s website in their frequently asked questions section, the sizing of N95 respirators can differ with each model. For example, the sizing options can include small, small/medium, medium, medium/large, and large. These size configurations are not standardized across all the available models and will depend largely on the manufacturer, respirator type, and model. N95 masks don’t usually come in sizes that will fit kids.
To determine the particular size and model of N95 respirator that will offer the optimal fit for each worker, fit testing is needed in every work setting where these face masks are required. This testing is model specific, and if multiple models are going to be used, then a fit test must be done for each one.
Just like the sizing varies from one model to the other, these respirators can also come in a wide variety of shapes, styles, and colors. These characteristics should not interfere with the fit of the respirator, or the status of approval by NIOSH. As long as it has been fit tested and the wearer can breathe comfortably, the variation in these characteristics is irrelevant.
According to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), fit tests must be done at least annually in the workplace to assess if the N95 mask used fits the wearer’s face. This fit test can be either qualitative, which is the recommended one, or quantitative. They should be done in other instances as well: if there’s a change in the style, model, make, or size of the respirator, if there’s a facial change in the user that can affect the fit of the mask, including dental work and weight fluctuation.
To take a specific brand as a model, 3M N95 masks offer different sizes depending on the model of the N95 mask. They have a wide range of N95 mask models, including the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, as well as the 3M 1860. They usually come in small, regular, and large sizes.
3M is one of the most reputable and reliable manufacturers when it comes to PPE in any work field, but has been a particularly important source for medical supplies, and N95 masks especially. They have been one of the top producers of these masks, which have been scarce for most of the year.