In this day and age, face masks are part of our daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things, and now covering our mouths and noses is a responsibility in public settings. A lot of the research has been focused on N95 masks, with efforts in making them either sterilizable or reusable being made by many organizations and institutions.

A lot of progress has been done during the last several months, and even though we don’t yet have the results on the market, these projects give us hope. Here we bring you just a few of the most promising engineering innovations that can improve our N95 masks.

What are N95 masks?

N95 respirators, commonly known as N95 masks, are different from medical or surgical face masks. Even though both are disposable face masks, N95 masks offer more virus protection, that’s why they’re considered to be the best for the coronavirus. The term N95 comes from the respirator classification established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH.

NIOSH tests and approves respirators in the United States, as part of their job to help prevent work-related diseases or injuries. Their rating system includes a classification, in which they name respirators taking into consideration their resistance to oil and filtration efficacy.

Respirators can be named with three different letters: N, R, or P, indicating that they’re not resistant, somewhat resistant, or oil-proof, respectively. After the letter comes a number, indicating the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy, which can be either 95, 99, or 100%. According to this, N95 masks are not resistant to oil and can filter out 95% of all airborne particles in the air.

This makes N95 masks effective towards particles that aren’t oil-based and airborne, such as smoke, dust, or viruses like the flu and, you guessed it, the coronavirus. For this reason, N95 masks are widely used in workplaces such as mining or construction, as well as healthcare settings.

As we mentioned, NIOSH certifies all respirators, including N95 masks. So, when purchasing N95 respirators, it’s important to look for the seal of approval by NIOSH to make sure the respirator is legitimately an N95 respirator and it was properly tested and regulated. For medical use, the respirator also needs approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Engineering innovations that could increase their efficacy

  • SEEUS and other adhesive N95 masks

The SEEUS95 is a new product that aims to solve many different types of problems that come with N95 masks and face masks in general. First, this is a clear face mask, and the inspiration for this was the fact that we’ve been covering our faces and social interactions are becoming more distant. The mask is also made with environmentally safe materials that make the mask more effective, like bamboo, silk, and nanosilver.

The SEEUS95 is also self-adhering, removing the need for uncomfortable ear loops or headbands. But this isn’t the only self-adhering N95 mask in development. For example, the GSF’s ReadiMask Self-Adhesive NIOSH-Certified N95 mask also offers a tight seal around the face with a skin-friendly adhesive.

  • Adding antiviral properties to N95 masks

At the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), engineers began to work on an N95 mask design that would include integrating antiviral properties that would make N95 masks self-sterilizing and also make them better withstand sterilization processes. This would be done by using materials that would inactivate viral particles on contact, enabling healthcare workers to use them for longer periods.

The developers are Edmund Palermo, assistant professor of engineering and materials science, and Helen Zha, assistant professor of biological and chemical engineering. They are looking for commercially available, highly charged, and, of course, non-toxic polymers that could effectively deactivate COVID-19. Other characteristics they look for in this material would be to increase the virus barrier and breathability and to preserve all the protective properties during sterilization.

Why they’re not reusable and scarce right now

N95 masks have been scarce since before COVID-19 became a pandemic. As this item is the best type of protection against the virus, healthcare workers need to use them while they’re at work, as well as other high-risk populations and jobs.

Despite efforts to increase their production, after experts and authorities urged governments around the world to take aggressive measures for this, shortages were quickly appearing around the world, including the USA. Healthcare centers became overwhelmed and collapsed quickly, while workers reused personal protective equipment (PPE) and made the most use out of the supplies they got.

The reason N95 masks have been scarce comes from the material they’re made of. Melt-blown fabric or material is a particular type of fabric that isn’t made just anywhere. The factories that produce this material are limited around the world, and creating new ones is more difficult than it seems.

The melt-blown material is made out of polypropylene under certain thermic and mechanical conditions. The result is a fabric with multiple little holes through which the particles get trapped when the material is used as a filter. This material is also not very durable, and that’s why N95 masks are disposable and get damaged after prolonged use.

Whether it’s reusable or disposable face masks, face shields, KN95 masks, or #M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, you can find plenty of options available for sale online to buy in bulk or wholesale. Make sure to stay protected, and remember that anyone who uses a face mask is doing their job during these difficult times.

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