Personal protective equipment (PPE) is something we've been hearing about a lot over the last several months, and while before the pandemic it was something only a few people knew about, now it's something we all have to be experts on. Today, in this article, we'll explain what an N95 mask is, and how they filter out airborne particles like bacteria and viruses from the air we breathe.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, N95 masks are a type of respirator inside their classification. This institution was created to make recommendations and spread information based on scientific research to help work settings across the United States to avoid work-related injuries or illnesses. They’re a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and they also regulate respirators manufactured inside the USA.
Respirators are mask-like devices that filter out particles from the air, which will vary depending on the type of respirator. They're a crucial part of the PPE in many work settings, particularly those with respiratory hazards, which are particles that can be detrimental to the person's health when inhaled, be it after an acute or chronic exposure to it. Some of the diseases that can be caused by respiratory hazards include lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
To ensure respirators work correctly according to the type of respirator it's intended to be, NIOSH tests them and then certifies whether or not they meet the requirements for each respirator type. This classification is considered the filtration standard for respirators inside the USA, and the NIOSH approval is very important to make sure the respirator is legitimate and not a counterfeit item.
The NIOSH classification is based on two characteristics after which they name respirators:
How effective they are against particles that contain oil, represented by the resistance to oil of the respirator. This is indicated with a letter that can be either N, R, or P, meaning not resistant, somewhat resistant, or oil-proof, respectively. N95 respirators can’t filter out oil-based particles because they have no resistance to oil.
The number of airborne particles they can filter out from the air, represented by the percentage of minimum particulate filtration efficacy. This percentage is indicated with a number that can be either 95, 99, or 100%. N95 masks have a filtration rate of 95%, meaning they can only filter out at least 95% of the airborne particles in the air being inhaled.
For this reason, N95 masks are effective for filtering out 95% of the non-oil-based particles in the air, which includes particles like dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu or the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Some particles they can’t filter out include those smaller than 0.3 micrometers, like vapors and gases, and those that contain oil, like glycerin or cutting fluid.
They're currently considered to be the best disposable face mask for virus protection during the pandemic and are better for antiviral purposes than other masks available like surgical or medical masks, as well as reusable cloth masks. This is why they've been highly requested and recommended to be prioritized and reserved for healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the pandemic who are at higher exposure to the virus.
Some popular models come from 3M, the biggest and most important manufacturer and distributor of medical PPE at the moment. The 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 models are two of the most purchased 3M N95 masks.
KN95 masks are often confused with N95 respirators, and even though they’re not technically the same because KN95 masks are manufactured following a different filtration standard, they’re very similar and are generally considered to be equivalent. KN95 masks can substitute N95 respirators when these aren’t available in healthcare settings during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
N95 masks and most respirators are made with a material called non-woven fabric or melt-blown material. This is a material made out of polypropylene, a plastic material that has many uses in a wide variety of industries. They’re used widely in the medical supply and PPE field to make various items, including surgical masks and N95 respirators.
The non-woven fabric has a lot of small holes in it, which act as the filter. These holes come from putting polypropylene through different types of processes, resulting in this fabric that doesn’t need any weaving. Airborne particles have a diameter of 0.3 micrometers, and therefore the holes in the filter would have to be smaller than that to trap them and prevent them from entering the airway.
However, having a filter with such small holes would make it very difficult for the wearer to breathe properly, and even though to be an N95 mask they have to filter out airborne particles, they also have to meet breathability requirements. To ensure this, manufacturers combine filtering methods that would allow them to use smaller holes in their filters. For example, one of the most widely used methods is adding an electrostatic charge to the non-woven material, which allows the media to attract and trap particles, both large and small, with the opposite charge.
We would like to end this informative piece by reminding our readers that they can find plenty of options for virus protection for sale online, available to buy them in bulk and wholesale, as well as options in a smaller size for kids. This includes reusable cloth masks, face shields, and other non-medical-grade face-coverings recommended to be used by the general public.