During this year, we’ve learned a lot about many different topics that gained a lot of attention because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal protective equipment, commonly referred to by the acronym PPE, is one of the main topics of discussion due to the threat of being a virus. Face masks in particular have been the center of attention, representing our only method of virus control at the moment.
Healthcare workers are some of the most exposed people to COVID-19, and therefore they need the highest form of protection available. This is why they have to wear several layers of PPE to be fully protected while working, especially when taking care of COVID-19 patients.
Surgical masks, N95 masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields are the minimum amount of PPE they have to wear. All these items were once very easy to find online for sale, with options to buy them in bulk and wholesale. But now, with the high demand for them, it’s very difficult to obtain them in healthcare centers where they’re needed most.
Without a doubt, N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are the most talked-about item among the ones we mentioned. They offer particular properties that make them extremely valuable in healthcare settings. However, most of us weren’t familiar with the term before, and don’t understand how they work.
In this article, we’ll discuss how these masks perform filtration, along with other relevant information about them.
N95 masks are also called N95 respirators because their name comes from a classification of respirators used in the United States. They’re disposable face masks with great antiviral properties, making them much more efficient for virus protection in healthcare settings than surgical masks, which are the most common face mask used in these situations. They’re also much more effective than reusable cloth masks, which are recommended for the general public along with social distancing measures. These two masks can’t substitute N95 masks in healthcare settings.
As we mentioned, the classification for respirator established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, commonly referred to as NIOSH, is where these masks get their names. This institution is a federal agency that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), makes sure workplaces across the USA prevent work-related illnesses or injuries by providing science-based recommendations and spreading information.
Respirators are critical in many work settings with respiratory hazards. These are particles that, when workers are exposed to them for prolonged periods in which they’re inhaling them, they can develop very serious respiratory conditions that include lung cancer. Respirators filter these particles by trapping them in their filter media so that the user doesn’t inhale them.
The naming system from which the name ‘N95’ comes from takes into consideration two main characteristics:
Resistance to oil-based particles: this is indicated in the name with one of three letters: N, R, or P, meaning the respirator is non-resistant, resistant, or oil-proof, respectively. The resistance to oil is directly proportional to the efficacy of the respirator with filtrating particles with oil molecules in them.
Filtration rate: this is indicated with a number, which can be either 95, 99, or 100, representing the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy. This tells us how many airborne particles, those with a size of 0.3 micrometers, the respirator can effectively filter out from the air the wearer is breathing.
Understanding this naming system, we can conclude that N95 masks are respirators with no oil resistance, which means they can’t filter out particles that contain oil, and a filtration rate of 95%. This means they can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles contained in the air, which includes a wide variety of particles that can be found in different work settings.
For example, dust and smoke can be found in construction sites or factories, pollen can be found in gardening places, and bioaerosols, including the flu virus and the noel coronavirus, can be found mainly in healthcare settings. For this reason, N95 masks can have many different uses.
To make sure the respirators that are manufactured following this classification do meet the criteria for each respirator type, NIOSH tests them out and gives their approval that the respirator can be marketed as that specific type.
For example, manufacturers of N95 masks must submit their masks to NIOSH and obtain their approval before marketing them as N95 respirators. Likewise, when these masks are going to be used in healthcare settings as PPE, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must also approve them like they do with all medical supplies and equipment.
You might have heard about KN95 masks and thought they’re the same as N95 masks, but this isn’t exactly true. These are manufactured following the filtration standard used in China, but these are very similar to the NIOSH ones, and KN95 masks are generally considered to be equivalent to N95 masks since they’re also non-oil-resistant respirators with a 95% filtration rate.
N95 masks contain a filter media inside them, which is an integral part of the mask. This filter material is usually made out of polypropylene, which goes through a process to turn it into a non-woven fabric, also known as melt-blown material. This is a type of fabric with multiple little holes all around them that trap the particles acting as a filter. Electrostatic charges are added to the fabric, which attracts particles with the opposite charge, trapping them as well, and enhancing the filtration properties of the material.
If you’re looking to purchase N95 masks, always go with reputable brands like Honeywell or 3M, with some popular 3M N95 masks being the 3M 1860, the 3M 8511, and the 3M 8210.