The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for over six months now, and we’ve been hearing a lot about medical terms we weren’t familiar with before. N95 masks have been at the forefront of the discussions regarding this new virus. Shortages, scams, scarcity, and the doubt about whether or not they’re effective, are some of the main questions regarding these disposable face masks.
As we all know, the new coronavirus species is a respiratory virus. Like other viruses in the coronavirus genus, the SARS-CoV-2 is also spread through droplets that are released when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. The droplets that contain the virus can be inhaled by an uninfected person, and the virus will start to replicate and colonize the respiratory tract.
N95 masks are considered the best face masks for virus protection since the beginning of the pandemic at the back in January. We’ve heard a lot about the national stockpile and the reserves of N95 masks in the United States, and a question most people ask themselves is whether or not these masks expire.
It’s important for employers who are going to buy in bulk or wholesale to know how long they can store these masks for, so today, we’ll address this question.
N95 masks: a brief explanation
N95 masks are a type of respirator according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH. This institution is in charge of regulating respirators to make sure they meet the required criteria for protection, as part of its goal to prevent work-related illnesses or injuries.
A lot of work settings are filled with particles known as respiratory hazards. These substances can be very detrimental to a worker’s health when inhaled, and can lead to dangerous conditions like lung cancer. This is why respirators, like N95 masks, are used by workers in industries like construction or mining.
The classification established by NIOSH takes into consideration two main characteristics from the respirators: minimum particulate filtration efficacy, and oil resistance. According to this classification, N95 masks are those that are not resistant to oil (indicated by the ‘N’) and can filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles (indicated by the number ‘95’).
This makes N95 masks the best masks for antiviral purposes, since they can filter out non-oil based particles. These include dust, coal smoke, and many bioaerosols, among which we can name the flu virus or the coronavirus, as well as the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. That’s why healthcare workers are currently using these respirators to protect themselves while working with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
All N95 masks must be approved by NIOSH to be considered as such. The institution tests and regulates face masks manufactured as N95 respirators, and they grant an approval certification that makes sure anyone who uses them is properly protected.
Do N95 masks have an expiration date?
If you manage inventories for PPE (personal protective equipment), you must know the vast majority of disposable face masks or respirators have an established shelf life. This is essentially an expiration date, since these disposable face masks should not be used after that shelf life is exceeded.
To some people, the thought of a face mask expiring is hard to understand, so let’s explain why this is. We know N95 masks protect the user against harmful particles, which are known as respiratory hazards. To do this, they contain filter media to trap the particulates, thus preventing the user from inhaling them. For the air to only go through the filter, the mask has to have a good fit around the face, this way there will be no leaking around the edges.
When a respirator is in storage for too long, surpassing the designated shelf life, it won’t work at its full potential. With time, the components from the face mask, like the strap or the nose foam, will start degrading, affecting the fit and seal of the mask. The expired respirators can also no longer meet the guidelines for respirators established by NIOSH.
The majority of 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, have a set shelf life, which is the same as an expiration date. This will vary according to the filter media, respirator type, materials used, and the date it was manufactured. For 3M N95 masks, you can find the shelf life information on the bottom or the side of the packaging, usually with an hourglass symbol.
This information will usually include the temperatures of storage at which the expiration date is applied. Storage conditions influence the shelf life of a respirator, and in the USA, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires the following:
- Respirators need to be stored in their original packaging.
- They need to be stored away from areas contaminated with dust, extreme temperatures, sunlight, damaging chemicals, or excessive moisture.
Aside from these recommendations, another tip to make sure your respirators are properly stored is to implement good inventory management, which includes stock rotation. Once your respirators expire, you need to maintain your stockpile with respirators that are usable. Some alternatives for disposing of your respirators include recycling and donation to groups in need.
There are a lot of options for sale online to stay safe and protected. From surgical face masks to reusable cloth masks, to face shields and KN95 masks, you can easily buy them online. You can even find these items in a smaller size for kids. Remember to stay safe!