At the beginning of the year, people started to buy medical PPE (personal protective equipment) and supplies in bulk and wholesale for the fear of the pandemic, with panic and uncertainty of what would happen. Most of these items are now, nine months later, hard to find for sale online. It’s important to know the difference between the available masks, which is why we’ll compare the exhalation between surgical masks and N95 masks.
The name of these masks come from the NIOSH classification for respirators. NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and it’s the institution in charge of helping workplaces in the United States prevent their workers from suffering work-related injuries or illnesses by making recommendations based on scientific research. To achieve their goal, they also test and regulate respirators following the mentioned classification, which is the filtration standard for respirators inside the USA.
It’s important to regulate respirators and make sure they work effectively for the work environment they’re intended for. These are important in many work settings where workers are exposed to dangerous levels of respiratory hazards. These are particles that can be harmful to the worker’s health when inhaled for prolonged periods. By wearing respirators, workers are prevented from inhaling them, and they’re safe at work.
To classify and name respirators, the NIOSH classification takes into consideration two properties that are reflected on the name. The first part of the name is a letter, which can be either N, R, or P, and it indicates the resistance to oil the respirator has. This resistance is directly proportional to the effectiveness of the respirator to protect against particles with oil. N means the respirator isn’t resistant, R means it’s somewhat resistant, and P means it’s oil-proof. The second part of the respirator name is a number: 95, 99, or 100. This is the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy, and it represents the number of airborne particles from the air the respirator can filter out.
Based on this explanation, it’s easy to understand what an N95 mask does: it filters out 95% of the non-oil-based particles in the air. This includes dust, coal smoke, and bioaerosols, like the flu virus or the virus responsible for COVID-19. This makes them the best disposable face mask for virus protection, with higher antiviral benefits than other face masks available. They fit tightly around the face to prevent leakage of unfiltered air.
This is the reason why N95 masks have been reserved for healthcare workers during the majority of the year. These are people who work in environments with a high risk of exposure to the virus, which is why they need the highest level of protection they can get from a face mask. Some of the most popular N95 masks are the 3M N95 masks in the models 3M 8511 and 3M 8210. Healthcare workers often use them with face shields for eye protection, and sometimes KN95 masks can substitute them if N95 masks aren’t available.
These are also disposable face masks, and you’ve probably seen them being worn by doctors, nurses, and other types of healthcare providers. They’re very popular, and they’re also called medical or dental face masks. People often referred to them as regular face masks, but they’re only intended for healthcare settings to be used in certain medical, surgical, or dental procedures.
They act primarily as a physical barrier between the environment and the wearer’s nose and mouth, preventing them from being in contact and inhaling potentially harmful particles that can be released into the air. These can be spread through fluids in the form of droplets, aerosols, splashes, or splatter, and by preventing these fluids from reaching the mucous membranes, they protect the wearer against certain diseases that can be spread this way.
This function works in both directions, and the face mask also prevents the fluids that can be released by the wearer into the environment from reaching it. This is important to maintain sterile fields, a situation that is frequent in the healthcare field, like during surgeries and certain medical procedures to avoid wound contamination, or when treating immunocompromised patients to prevent them from getting a severe infection.
Surgical masks also have a filtering activity, but it’s limited and not as high as the one in N95 respirators. They’re also more loose-fitting, which allows space for air leakage.
Exhalation comparison between N95 masks and surgical masks
Both of these face masks offer a specific degree of protection, with N95 masks being more protective than surgical masks. However, the great protective qualities of N95 masks come at the expense of them being a little more uncomfortable than surgical masks.
N95 respirators are fitted tightly and have a filter media that allows the filtration of particles as small as 0.3 micrometers. This makes exhalation a little more difficult than in surgical masks, which are loose-fitting and only filter out large particles. However, people are supposed to breathe comfortably and normally with both, and if the wearer is experiencing difficulty breathing with any face mask, they should be removed.
We would like to end this informative article by reminding our readers that anyone who uses any type of face-covering in public settings, including kids over the age of 2 in the corresponding size, is helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. Medical-grade masks like the N95 masks and surgical masks we talked about in this article should be reserved for the healthcare workers on the frontlines.