With the COVID-19 pandemic in development, a lot of people around the world have started to get familiar with medical terms and the personal protective equipment (PPE). One of the words that have been thrown around the most is ‘face mask’, and with good reason. The use of face masks and the practice of social distancing have been our two main resources for avoiding the spread of the SARS-Cov-2.
The N95 respirator, also known as the N95 mask, has been the center of attention among all the disposable face masks out there. And, along with it, came the KN95 mask. But, what is the difference between the two? Both seem to be used interchangeably. We’ll explain some of their differences between the two disposable face masks that are being used increasingly across the globe.
First, let’s talk about their similarities. Both of these masks are used frequently as part of the PPE for people who work in construction, mining, and painting. It’s also useful for allergies, and the N95 respirator is a staple for any family with kids who suffer from allergies, or for allergic adults who have to clean and dust their homes.
You may have noticed that the names of these masks are quite similar, and that’s why they tend to get mixed up. However, the similarity of their names has a reason. Both of these masks are meant to have a filtration rate of at least 95% of airborne particles, hence their names. But, the first difference comes from the regulatory standards that dictate each mask.
The N95 respirator must meet the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) classification to be called as such. This is the classification used in the United States, and according to the type of respirator, a name is given. The NIOSH has nine classifications dictating the efficacy level of the respirator filtration.
According to the NIOSH classification, an N95 respirator means that the mask is not resistant to oil (the ‘N’) and that it filtrates at least 95% of particles in the air that are airborne, meaning that they have a diameter of 0.3 micrometers (the ‘95’).
Now, as we said, the NIOSH classification is the one used in the US, but there are different standards for respirators across the world. For example, in Europe, they have the EN 149:2001+A1:2009, and in China the GB2626-2006.
The KN95 is a classification of face respirators which, according to the Chinese standards, is non-resistant to oil (the ‘KN’) and filtrate 95% (the ‘95’) or airborne particles, just like the N95 respirators. In fact, according to 3M, KN95 respirators are equivalent to the US N95 masks for "filtering non-oil-based particles such as those resulting from wildfires, PM 2.5 air pollution, volcanic eruptions, or bioaerosols (e.g. viruses)".
In the US, the N95 respirator is the most commonly available face mask for sale as PPE. They are not specifically regulated by the FDA unless the manufacturer wants to market the mask for medical use. When regulated by the FDA, along with the CDC and NIOSH, N95 respirators can be used for medical, surgical, and dental use, providing full safety. However, in response to the pandemic, on March 2, 2020, the FDA stated that certain specific respirators approved by NIOSH that weren't regulated by them prior to that day were cleared to be used by health care workers.
Several KN95 models also fell under this emergency authorization granted by the FDA, and were deemed safe to be used as respirators. But, after failing to meet a minimum particulate filtration rate of 95%, on May 7, 2020, a lot of models were removed from the emergency authorization. This is a perfect example of how the differing American and Chinese standards can have an impact on everyday users of these two masks. Especially in the case of KN95s, it is important that they meet US standards in order to be considered effective respirators for use in the daily lives of Americans.
So, the bottom line here is that N95 respirators are based on US standards and KN95 is based on Chinese standards. Now, are there any differences between these standards? Yes, but they are usually considered very small.
The Chinese standards require that the manufacturer run a special fit test on humans, and the masks must have less than 8% leakage to pass the test. These types of fit tests aren't required by the NIOSH to classify a mask as N95. Sure, some companies can require fit tests for their workers, but they’re not NIOSH requirements.
On the other hand, N95 masks must meet stricter breathability standards than the ones for KN95. For example, the pressure drop requirements while inhaling and exhaling are slightly stricter, which ensures good oxygenation while wearing the mask (yes, that means you can’t die suffocated by a face mask).
Other than these two slight differences, both masks are pretty much interchangeable. However, N95 respirators are much more available here in the United States, and will be a lot easier to find than KN95 masks.
We recommend to always stay protected while going out of your house during these times. An N95 respirator is easy to buy, and you can find some of the best quality ones and at a good price on online shops to keep the social distancing. Be it an N95 respirator or a KN95 one, as long as they’re NIOSH certified, make sure to always cover your face when in public, or when it is not possible to maintain an appropriate degree of separation from those around you.