Protection against the COVID-19 is one of the most popular topics and has been during the majority of the year. Face masks have become part of our daily routines, and we now make sure to bring one every time we leave the house, just like we check for our keys and phone.
The United States has been experiencing shortages of medical supplies that have severely affected healthcare centers in almost every state. Items like face shields, surgical masks, gloves, gowns, and respirators, including 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860, are very difficult to find available for bulk and wholesale purchases.
This has led to many people wondering how they can make their protective equipment (PPE) at home. Reusable cloth masks have been very popular and encouraged to be used by the authorities in the USA. However, the most affected item has been the N95 mask, and today we’ll discuss the topic of whether or not these masks can be made at home.
Understanding how N95 masks work and how they’re made
N95 masks are a type of respirator with very particular antiviral properties, making them the best option for virus protection among the available face masks on the market. They’ve been a crucial part of the PPE used by healthcare professionals during the pandemic for this reason.
The name of these masks means they’re not resistant to oil, indicated by the letter ‘N’, and they have a 95% filtration efficacy for airborne particles, which are those that can travel through the air because they have a size as small as 0.3 micrometers. This is according to NIOSH, a federal agency that regulates respirators in the United States.
NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an institution that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their main goal is to provide information and recommendations that would help prevent work-related or occupational injuries and illnesses, some of which can be caused by respiratory hazards.
N95 masks can protect against non-oil-based particles that are also airborne, and such particles are very diverse and can be found in many different work settings. For example, workers exposed to dust, like construction workers and miners, those exposed to smoke, like firefighters, or in environments where there’s a risk of infection with viruses like the flu or the novel coronavirus, like in healthcare settings, can use these masks for protection. So, N95 masks have a wide variety of uses.
They are disposable face masks, which means they are intended to be used only once and then discarded, like surgical masks. They’re made with a material called non-woven fabric, also known as non-woven material, which is made out of polypropylene. This fabric makes up the filter media and has multiple holes with a very small size, meant to trap the airborne particles.
Additionally, electrostatic charges are added to this fabric to increase its filtration efficacy. The charges attract particles, both large and small, with the opposite charge, trapping them on the filter media. The reason for these masks being disposable is that, with continued use, the moisture eliminates these charges, making the filtration efficacy decrease.
As we mentioned, NIOHS regulates these respirators, and this is to make sure each respirator manufactured following their classification meets the requirements for the corresponding type. For example, if a manufacturer produces N95 masks and is going to market them as such, NIOSH must test the masks first to certify they work the way an N95 mask should.
KN95 are very similar to N95 masks, and not only because of their name, but they also have similar filtration properties. They can also filter out 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, making them equivalent to N95 masks, the only difference being that these are manufactured and regulated following Chinese filtration standards.
So, can you make N95 masks at home?
Technically, the answer to this question is yes. But, only if you have all the equipment, materials, and then the masks are approved by NIOSH. In reality, the process of making these masks is very difficult and expensive, starting with the production of the raw material and then the assembly. Lastly, obtaining a NIOSH certification is sometimes a lengthy process, with some of the most powerful manufacturers struggling to obtain them.
The type of face masks you can make easily at home are known as cloth masks, which are cleanable and reusable. They are recommended to be used in public settings by the general public, along with staying at a 6 feet distance from people who don’t live with you. They can be worn by kids over the age of 2 if they are made in a size that fits their face.
There are multiple sources online where you can get instructions on how to make one of these cloth masks at home, or you can buy them already made. Since the pandemic began, many physical and online stores began selling them, and it’s very easy to find them for sale.
However, it’s very important to point out that cloth masks are not effective in healthcare settings, so they can’t substitute N95 masks or surgical masks under no circumstance. These are masks that work for source control in less risky situations, while healthcare settings represent a very high risk of exposure to the virus.
To help the healthcare workers struggling to obtain this respirator and other medical-grade masks, the CDC encourages the general public to reserve them for these frontline workers and make use of the cloth masks instead.