How do HEPA filters in N95 masks filter air?

With all the talk surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of face masks has been a prominent topic of discussion throughout the year. Between face shields, KN95 masks, N95 masks, surgical masks, and cloth masks, it’s easy to get lost with all the terms, since the general public wasn’t familiar with them before this situation.

Hospitals in particular have been needing these items in bulk and wholesale, but the demand has been so high that incredible efforts to increase their production haven’t been enough to make sure these facilities get enough of them. This has led to healthcare workers having to reuse disposable face masks.

Among all the talk about masks and filters, HEPA filters have entered the conversation earlier in the year. However, not a lot of people understand this term and where these filters are used. In this article, we’ll explain how N95 masks and HEPA filters work, and whether or not they can be used together.

N95 masks

N95 masks are a type of respirator, which is why they’re also called N95 respirators. They’ve been considered throughout the year the best option for virus protection in healthcare workers since their antiviral filtering properties are so high they can provide protection even in those high-risk situations. For this reason, they’ve been critical items in this work field.

Their names come from the classification of respirators established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They’re the institution in the United States in charge of regulating respirators since they’re important parts of the personal protective equipment (PPE) used in different workplaces.

Respirators are masks that have a particularly high filtering ability. They’re used in settings, especially work-related ones, where there’s exposure to small particles that can be detrimental to the respiratory health of the workers. By filtering out these particles and trapping them in their filter media, they prevent workers from developing occupational illnesses.

N95 masks, according to NIOSH, can filter out particles like dust, smoke, pollen, and viruses like the flu virus and the new coronavirus. All of them have in common the fact that they don’t contain oil and they’re airborne, which means they have a size of 0.3 micrometers and can travel through the air.

NIOSH tests all respirators manufactured as N95 ones and makes sure they will perform as such before they’re distributed and marketed as N95 masks. Some of the most popular NIOSH-approved N95 masks are the 3M N95 masks, with models like the 3M 8511, 3M 8210, and 3M 1860.

HEPA filters

With all the talk surrounding the COVId-19 pandemic, all sorts of new terms have been thrown around that might confuse people. HEPA is an acronym that stands for High-Efficiency Particulate Air. In theory, these are filters capable of filtering out 99.97% of the airborne particles in the air, which includes both viruses and bacteria.

When you read about HEPA and other types of filters, there’s another acronym you’ve probably encountered: MERV. This one stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, and it’s a measure of the efficacy a filter shows for the filtration of particulates. Some filters with high MERV qualify as HEPA filters.

HEPA filters work very similarly to the filters used in N95 masks, with the use of electrostatic charges to attract particles in combination with acting as a physical barrier to others.

However, these filters haven’t been widely used as part of face masks, and there’s a reason for that. Although they are recommended for the overall health of a household, since they can filter out microorganisms like viruses, and can be used inside face masks if there aren’t any other options available, some concerns about the effects these filters can have on your health are still being raised.

The main concern comes from the fact that they’re manufactured using fiberglass particles with a very small size. The levels of these particles have been determined to be acceptable in most cases, and scholarly studies have determined they represent no more than a minor irritant, just like dust in small amounts.

However, if the levels of fiberglass in HEPA filters concern you still, some filters with very high MERV ratings are made with cotton and polyester, and can be good substitutes for HEPA filters.

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Do N95 masks use HEPA filters?

The filtering media used in N95 masks is not a HEPA filter. N95 respirators use, typically, a non-woven fabric that contains multiple small holes in them that can trap very small particles. Additionally, electrostatic charges are added to this material to improve the filtering properties. The charges attract particles with the opposite charge, trapping them in the filtering media.

HEPA filters are made with a different material and are not usually put on face masks. They’re typically used for domestic devices, like vacuum cleaners and air filters. However, they offer a very similar efficacy when it comes to the filtration of airborne particles to the N95 masks.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to stay protected at all times. Reusable cloth masks are the recommended face mask for the general public, and HEPA filters can even be added to them with certain precautions. Cloth masks without filters can be used by kids above the age of 2 in their corresponding size.

Cloth masks are some of the most widely available face masks right now and can be found for sale very easily online. It’s important to reserve medical-grade supplies, which includes face masks and respirators, for the healthcare facilities that need them the most, since workers there are closely and consistently exposed to the virus.

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