The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of new things into our lives. This respiratory virus that was first reported in December of last year is a new species of coronavirus, a genus of viruses known to invade the respiratory tract of humans, causing very mild flu-like infections. However, this new species has behaved very differently than other coronaviruses.
The SARS-CoV-2 can cause a very serious respiratory illness, damaging the lungs to a point where the patient might need ventilation. It can also affect other organs, and even cause a multi-organ failure. The risk of developing a severe illness comes with certain groups of people, like older people, immunocompromised patients, and people with comorbidities like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.
But, since this is a primarily respiratory virus and it spreads by inhalation of droplets containing the virus, the main way to prevent the spread is by using face masks. By now, it’s safe to say we’re all experts on the different types of face masks, from disposable face masks to reusable cloth ones, and we know when and how to use them.
However, some people still confuse surgical face masks for N95 masks, and there are some key differences between the two. Keep reading to learn all about these two face masks and why they’re not the same.
First, let’s start with surgical masks. These are loose-fitting disposable face masks that work as a physical barrier between the wearers mouth and nose and the potentially dangerous particles in the environment. These face masks are usually labeled as surgical, dental, medical, or isolation procedure masks. Just like N95 masks, they shouldn’t be shared and can be used with a face shield.
Surgical masks are those known commonly as regular face masks, but not all face masks can be used as a surgical face mask, since these are tightly regulated. They are made with various levels of thickness that offer different levels of protection against liquids specifically. This affects the breathability of the face mask, as well as the level of protection it offers.
These face masks are designed to trap and filter splashes, sprays, splatter, or droplets of large particles that may contain microorganisms, including viruses and bacteria. This is done to prevent them from reaching either the mouth or nose, which are the ways of transmission of many microorganisms, including the coronavirus. Surgical masks are also meant to avoid your respiratory secretions or saliva from reaching others.
So, surgical masks are only meant to block or filter large particles, but they don’t offer protection against very small particles that can be released in sneezes or coughs, or during specific medical procedures. Also, because of the loose fit of the mask against the face, it won’t offer complete bacteria or virus protection, as well as protection against other particles.
These are disposable face masks, so they’re designed to be used only once and then discarded. If the mask gets damaged or if breathing is becoming difficult, the surgical mask should be removed and replaced with a new one. After handling the used surgical mask, the user must wash their hands.
N95 masks are also called N95 respirators. These are a very specific type of disposable face mask that is used as PPE in many work fields, not only the medical one. The name N95 comes from a classification of respirators established by NIOSH, the American institution in charge of preventing occupational illnesses or injuries in the United States.
NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and they set the standards for respirators in the USA. They test, regulate, and certify respirators, making sure they meet the criteria to be the type of respirator they’re claiming to be, according to their classification of respirators.
In this classification, they group the masks according to their resistance to oil and their minimum particulate filtration efficacy. The letters N, R, or P indicate that the mask is either non-resistant, resistant, or oil-proof. The number 95, 99, and 100 indicate the minimum percentage of airborne particles the respirator can filter from the air.
N95 masks can filter out at least 95% of all airborne non-oil based particles, like dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. This makes them the best mask for antiviral purposes, but they also offer protection against other dangerous particles, that’s why they’re used in work fields like mining or construction as well.
All N95 masks should have the approval stamp by NIOSH. If a respirator claiming to be N95 doesn’t have one, anyone who uses them is in danger of inhaling harmful particles, as the respirator wasn’t properly regulated.
So, are they the same?
The answer is no, these two types of disposable face masks are not the same, and shouldn’t be used as interchangeable. As we explained, N95 masks offer much more protection, particularly virus protection, and are the only face masks that can offer almost 100% protection against the harmful particles we mentioned.
Surgical masks are often used only in healthcare settings and are mostly designed to prevent doctors and other healthcare workers from spreading germs to their patients or from infecting a wound they’re treating. Surgical masks can be used by the general public in moments when social distancing can’t be done, and they can be used along with a face shield for more protection.
If you want to find disposable face masks to buy in bulk or wholesale, you can find many options for sale online. Products like surgical masks, KN95 masks, and 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 can be bought very easily, but always making sure you’re buying high-quality items. Remember that kids can’t use regular adult-sized face masks, and need a smaller size.