Comparing the filtration of surgical masks to N95 respirators

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, surgical masks and N95 respirators were only worn by workers who needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to safely perform their jobs. Those that belong to the healthcare and construction industry know very well how important surgical masks and N95 respirators are. 

But because of the pandemic, surgical masks and N95 respirators have become increasingly popular and people could be seen wearing them in public places. What makes a surgical mask different from an N95 respirator? Is a surgical mask effective against COVID-19? Do you need a surgical mask or you should use an N95 respirator?

Surgical masks and N95 respirators

Surgical masks are also known as medical masks as they are typically worn in healthcare settings during various medical and surgical procedures. A surgical mask is a disposable mask placed over a user’s nose and mouth. It is fluid-resistant and provides protection from large droplets and splashes. A surgical mask captures the respiratory droplets of the person wearing it, reducing the spread of harmful organisms from the wearer to the surrounding environment.

An N95 respirator is a disposable negative pressure particulate respirator that protects the user from airborne particles. Its facepiece either has a filter or the entire facepiece is made of filtering material.

Filtration efficiency of surgical masks and N95 respirators

A surgical mask is not considered respiratory protection as it does not protect the wearer from small airborne particles. Leakage occurs around the edges of a surgical mask whenever a person inhales. The surgical mask serves as a barrier only to large droplets and fluids that may contaminate the wearer.

Surgical masks are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in healthcare settings. Furthermore, surgical masks are tested to ensure they provide a certain level of protection.

An N95 respirator, on the other hand, gives adequate protection against airborne particles. They are tight-fitting and create a seal on a person’s face, filtering both small and large particles including aerosols. 

A person wearing an N95 mask needs to pass a fit test before using one to ensure that the mask has at least 95 percent filtering efficiency and to minimize air leaks on its edges.

What type of face mask should I use?

CDC recommends that members of the public to wear a cloth mask when going to crowded places and especially when social distancing is difficult. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads even if a person does not have symptoms or before they start to show symptoms. In fact, a person might be more contagious during this time. By wearing a face mask, you are protected from these individuals. Similarly, if you are carrying the virus, your face mask will prevent the virus from infecting others.

CDC advises the general public to reserve N95 masks for healthcare workers as these respirators are considered critical supplies and should be available when healthcare staff needs them.

Despite the advisory, a lot of people still prefer the surgical mask or the N95 respirator over regular cloth masks. The surgical mask is a good choice if you are not satisfied with the level of protection offered by a cloth mask. 

A surgical mask is cheaper than an N95 respirator and you can buy a box of surgical masks for a reasonable price. As surgical masks are affordable, you should be able to discard a surgical mask after a single use and reduce any chances of contamination from reusing it.

A surgical mask is also a better choice than an N95 respirator if you have chronic health issues that affect your breathing. Your doctor may not give you medical clearance to wear an N95 mask as it is tight-fitting and leads to breathing difficulties for some people.

Additionally, a close facial fit may not be achieved if you have significant facial hair. In this case, you can wear a surgical mask instead.

How to wear a surgical mask

  • Make sure your hands are clean. If dirty, wash hands with soap and water or sanitizer.
  • Get a surgical mask from the box and check the surgical mask for any damages. Discard a surgical mask that has obvious holes or tears.
  • Put the surgical mask over your mouth and nose with the bendable edge resting on top of your nose. Pinch it to mold to the shape of your nose. 
  • Secure the bottom of the surgical mask under your chin.
  • Fit the surgical mask to the sides of the face. Slip the loops of the surgical mask over your ears. If the surgical mask comes with strings, tie them behind your head.
  • If your surgical mask requires frequent adjustment or it does not fit you properly, you might need to use a different brand or a different face mask altogether.
  • Make sure that you are comfortable wearing your surgical mask and you can breathe without difficulties.

Other ways to stop the spread of COVID-19

Besides wearing a surgical mask or N95 respirator, it is also important to practice good hand hygiene. This means washing your hands with soap and water frequently. An alcohol-based sanitizer may also be used. 

Practice social distancing at all times. Stay away from people who are displaying signs of COVID-19. Do your best to stay at home especially when there are outbreaks in the community. 

Avoid touching your face especially when hands have not been washed or sanitized. Also, do not touch your surgical mask as it may be contaminated. Discard your surgical mask properly and wash your hands after.

Wearing a surgical mask helps protect you and your loved ones from COVID-19. They are affordable, easily available, and comfortable to use. Always have a surgical mask ready and do your part in stopping the spread of the virus.

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