The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is, inside the USA, the institution responsible for testing and approving respirators, making sure they meet their standards for each respirator type inside their classification, from which the term ‘N95’ comes. This classification takes into consideration two characteristics:
- Oil resistance: indicated by a letter that can be either N for not resistant, R for resistant, and P for oil-proof.
- Filtration rate: it’s the number that represents the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy, and it can be either 95, 99, or 100%.
This gives nine possible respirator types, for example, N99, R100, or P95. The N95 respirators are then any type of respirators that are not resistant to oil and can filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles in the environment. This makes them effective for protection against particles like dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu.
This is why N95 masks are considered the best disposable face masks for virus protection, with much better antiviral properties than surgical or medical masks, or reusable cloth masks. They can be worn with or without face shields, and some of the most popular models are the 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511.
N95 respirators are usually confused with the KN95 masks, which are regulated under the Chinese standards for respirators. Even though they’re not technically the same, they’re considered their equivalent, and can substitute them in case of emergencies.
N95 masks can be made with many different materials, but the most used material is polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, which means that when it’s exposed to high temperatures, it can be molded and it will solidify in that form when temperatures are lower. Polypropylene is used around the world for many different things, but one of them is to make a fabric commonly known as “non-woven fabric” or “melt-blown fabric”.
Non-woven fabric is a type of fabric that doesn’t require weaving techniques, and it’s highly resistant to environmental conditions and also very lightweight. The term ‘melt-blown ‘is used because, using thermic, chemical, or mechanical processes, polypropylene results in the web-like fabric that is widely used to make N95 respirators for the various properties we’ll discuss shortly.
At this point, it’s important to point out that, as we explained above, a respirator can be called an N95 respirator only if it’s certified by NIOSH, after meeting their requirements for an N95 mask. These requirements are the two characteristics we explained above, and have nothing to do with the materials used. So, N95 masks could be made with virtually any type of material, as long as it meets the criteria set by NIOSH and is approved by them.
The non-woven fabric is used to make the filter media inside the N95 respirator. The material has a lot of small pores that are meant to trap the harmful particles in the environment, preventing the wearer from inhaling them and developing health conditions related to them. The pores need to be small enough to be able to filter particles as small as 0.3 micrometers to be certified as N95.
Having such small holes could potentially affect the breathability of the face mask, and N95 masks also need to meet breathability requirements to be approved. So, pores can’t be that small either, and to meet both requirements, manufacturers use other filtration techniques to ensure both breathability and filtration efficacy on the same face mask.
The most used mechanism is electrostatic filtration. The principle for this method is that, since opposite charges attract, adding an electrostatic charge to the filter media will attract and trap particles with the opposite charge, no matter their size. This would allow the face masks to have smaller pores, allowing the user to breathe comfortably, while still filtering the harmful particles. Polypropylene doesn’t naturally have a charge, and manufacturers add them to enhance filtration. Also, carbon dioxide is small enough to go through the pores, unlike viruses and other particles, so the build-up of this gas isn’t possible either.
So, face masks on their own can’t cause the user to suffocate or to breathe uncomfortably, because they legally have to meet breathability requirements to be distributed and sold.
But, there are certain situations or health conditions that can make it difficult to wear a face mask, especially an N95 respirator, without experiencing difficulty breathing. Some of these situations include anxiety attacks and people with respiratory illnesses like asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
According to Christopher Ewing, a lung specialist, wearing a mask in general can affect breathing, but not because of anything serious. He says: “Most of us aren't used to wearing face masks, and the sensation of having a mask on your face might make someone anxious or uncomfortable.” So, the discomfort of having a face-covering can lead to anxious thoughts and the sensation of not breathing well.
For more information about what to do for each of these situations that could lead to difficulty breathing while wearing a face mask, you can check out the information given on this website. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone who has trouble breathing shouldn’t wear a face mask if this makes it more difficult to breathe.
If you are a United States citizen, wearing any type of face-covering is a responsibility to help out the most vulnerable in our communities. You can find many options for sale online, with options in a smaller size for kids, and to buy in bulk or wholesale as well. Anyone who uses a face mask is doing their part for their community.